Recently, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see a single painting, a practice I learned long ago from my father who first took me to see art when I was a little kid. We’d go to a museum or gallery to look at one work. Really look. Rest in it. Take in its details and presence and feeling for as long as we wanted to, until we felt changed, and filled. Even as a child I felt it as liberation from the common, tedious obligation to look at as many paintings or sculptures as possible.

Although it flies in the face of the modern trend of seeing as much art as you can pack into one visit —and taking selfies along the way for corroboration— the singular, conscious focus on just one artwork dates back centuries. In The Battle for Attention in the New Yorker, Nathan Heller describes a secret society of artists, authors, booksellers, professors and avant-gardists devoted to just such a practice. They are called the Order of the Third Bird:

Participants in the Order would converge, flash-mob style, at museums, stare intensely at a work of art for half an hour, and vanish, their twee-seeming feat of attention complete. (The Order’s name alluded to a piece of lore about three birds confronting a painting by the ancient artist Zeuxis: the first was frightened away, the second approached to try to eat painted fruit, and the third just looked.)

Heller eventually found members of the Order and reported on their process, which is WAY more rigorous than my father’s and my simple viewing.

Agnes Martin, Friendship photographed by Sally Schneider at MOMA © 2024 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The effect of Agnes Martin’s sublime gold-leafed painting Friendship during my singular visit to MOMA resonated for hours. In her notes to her remarkable 1973 essay On the Perfection Underlying Life, Martin herself described the feeling I had:

Moments of perfection are indescribable but a few things can be said about them. At such times we are suddenly very happy and we wonder why life ever seemed troublesome. In an instant we can see the road ahead free from all difficulties, and we think that we will never lose it again. All this and a great deal more in barely a moment, and then it is gone. But all such moments are stored in the mind.

Agnes Martin, Friendship photographed by Sally Schneider at MOMA © 2024 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Perhaps my feeling for Friendship has to do with what I knew of Martin from her writings which could be taken as a guide to making art, and living:

We will all get there someday however and do the work that we are supposed to do. Of all the pitfalls in our paths and the tremendous delays and wanderings off the track I want to say that they are not what they seem to be. I want to say that all that seems like fantastic mistakes are not mistakes and all that seems like error is not error, and it all has to be done. That which seems like a false step is just the next step.


More about Friendship here.

If you’ve found illumination, joy, or inspiration in this post, please consider supporting Improvised Life. It only takes a minute to make a secure donation that helps pay our many costs. A little goes a long way towards helping Improvised Life continue to live ad-free in the world.

Support Improvised Life ♥

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *