It’s an art-world mantra that has held true for centuries: To really appreciate an artwork, you have to see it in person. A copy just won’t do, even if it mimics the original. Observing a photo in a hefty coffee table book won’t do, either. And the internet? Forget about it!
To appreciate a piece of art, we’ve been told, we must get really close. We should be able to smell the acrylic wafting off that painting, scrutinize the photo’s full panorama or slowly circle that sculpture in order to discover inspiration from every angle.
So where does that leave an art-lover in the age of coronavirus? Museums and art galleries have effectively shut down and viewing art in shared, indoor public spaces is a physical impossibility — at least in the short term.
Fortunately, for those who can suspend their suspicion of online viewing, there are many free options currently available. These web-based shows feature art that is still sublime — so long as you give it a chance. Those who do will find that viewing art online opens up certain engagement opportunities not available IRL.
For example, screen zooms let you see the artwork even more microscopically than you would in person. It’s this kind of seeing that’s still the ultimate “get” when you take in an artwork. It’s what Leonardo da Vinci was intimating in the 15th century when he said: “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt.” And it’s what Aristotle was intimating centuries earlier when he said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
The following nine artworks provide both: An inward significance and an outward immersion that will last for far more than a few moments.
The March from Selma to Montgomery
Matt Herron, 1965
This is civil-rights activism up close. This is the 1965 Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery that — led by stalwart figures at the local and national level, including Martin Luther King, Jr. — helped drive public support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Herron’s photos of the entire march and its aftermath went on display in mid-February at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch (which is temporarily closed), and each photo — including The March from Selma to Montgomery — is an insight into the everyday lives that comprised the 1965 march and that carried on despite police brutality and the hatred of racists who wanted things to stay the same. Online, this photo still provides a full uplift. Members of the San Francisco Public Library may view the piece by clicking here. Others can see it at the Harvard Art Museum’s website.
Charlie Parker (formerly Bird)
Raymond Saunders, 1977
SFMOMA doesn’t normally have this work up anyway, and doesn’t even post the art online — which is too bad since it’s one of Saunders’ many all-star creations. Saunders’ artworks are pastiches of paint, imagery, wording, and other relevant additions — and this work is a dreamscape with a Charlie Parker twist. Clouds and crosses at the top give way to a mostly black surface in the artwork’s body, where “bird” is handwritten in white, followed by a small, black-and-white photo. Of course, this eight-foot-tall art is best seen in person, but even online, Charlie Parker (formerly Bird) is a thrill to partake — a window into Saunders’ unique vision, which skirts a colorful line between abstraction and figuration and between outright social commentary and an indirect implicitness that keeps you guessing. You can see it on this Tumblr page and read more about it at the SFMOMA website.
Robert Xavier Burden, 2020
In the hands of inspired artists, reliquaries are unlike anything else — and Burden nails it with this Batman-themed reliquary that’s part of his Heron Arts exhibit that opened on Feb. 29 (and is temporarily closed). In the artwork’s center is a menacing Batman — much more the dark knight of recent Hollywood vintage than the campy Batman of 20th-century TV. Surrounded by other memorable characters — and a bat that looks like the real thing — Batman Reliquary also incorporates a bulbous black frame and a pattern of red triangles that gives this work its appealing aesthetic, whether in person or online. View this and other works by Burden at the Heron Arts website.
Spaces in Between (Moss Green)
Bernadette Jiyong Frank, 2014
With its beams of white, translucent rays set against a green, sky-like background, this painting is a portal into the depths of mystery and wonder. Even online, it retains those traits. Frank first exhibited the painting in 2014 at Dolby Chadwick Gallery, where it stood with a series of other works with translucent rays. Being in that space was like being in the Tate Modern’s Mark Rothko room, where the pattern of paintings instills a domino effect of emotion and contemplation. That effect is still in place when you go online to visit Spaces in Between (Moss Green) online.
Wayne Thiebaud, 1993
The de Young Museum owns this painting, and like all of Thiebaud’s artworks, its colors and swooping perspective are giveaways that Thiebaud did it. When SF Weekly interviewed Thiebaud in 2012, he said that the color palettes in paintings like Diagonal Freeway and the de Young-owned Three Machines (which features three gumball machines) “show a spectral range, like a rainbow. And that energy is something that basically attracts us — like a rainbow, like flowers, like anything that has this sort of wondrous, pulsating power.” That power still comes through when you see Thiebaud’s work online.
Into the Headlands
Susan Burnstine, 2018
When Susan Burnstine exhibited Into the Headlands at Corden Potts Gallery in 2018, it was part of her new series of color photos after years of making only black-and-white images. But Into the Headlands had the same Susan Burnstine touch: A blurry, almost ethereal look at an otherwise known scene, which, with its square frame and moody veneer, resembles the kind of Instagram shot you wish you could take. Burstine uses homemade cameras, tinkered lenses, and her own dreams to create her otherworldly images. Into the Headlands is a pre-coronavirus look at the Golden Gate Bridge that — in the wake of what’s happening now — captures a surreal atmosphere that is more relatable than ever. View this and other Burnstine works online.
Convicts Fetching Water
Liu Zheng, 2006
China is a nation of 1.4 billion people. Liu’s photo series called The Chinese — which appeared at SFMOMA in 2018 as part of the museum’s exhibit “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” — is centered on China’s marginalized. Convicts Fetching Water is one of the series’ many standout images. Many of the men in this photo look at Liu — and by extension, the viewer — as they wait to fill up their water jugs. One man has a cigarette in his mouth. All of the inmates are uniformed — put in their place by forces that dictated their movements. Seen online, Convicts Fetching Water becomes a poignant snapshot of people trapped for an instant in their own circumstances.
Jay DeFeo, 1958-1966
DeFeo’s best-known work, The Rose is to DeFeo what the Sistine Chapel is to Michelangelo: Iconic, breath-taking, almost incomprehensible. Like the Sistine Chapel, The Rose took years to make — but DeFeo worked on this giant, 10-foot-tall piece without the support of a well-funded institution, and The Rose languished in quasi-storage for years. SFMOMA helped re-introduce it to the world with a 2012 retrospective that went on to the Whitney Museum of American Art, which owns The Rose. Yes, it’s a painting, but it has so many layers, protrusions, and ridges that it’s really a sculpture. The Whitney is closed because of the coronavirus. But its website is still going strong, and it’s there (with still images and video) that you can see every angle of The Rose, and get to know its long San Francisco history.
Shiva Ahmadi, 2017
A six-minute animated video about hellish times and group thinking, Ascend was screened at Haines Gallery in a fall 2018 exhibit, where art-goers could see it in the confines of the gallery’s dark, theater-like space. Online, Ascend is still a profoundly moving work — even more powerful if you watch on a computer and plug in headphones that ratchet up the sounds, which include Nima Mohandesan’s haunting music. Ahmadi is assistant professor of art at UC Davis. Originally from Iran, she has seen society’s extremes from different geographical vantage points.