For Art's Sake - Sudden impact

Sometimes, art is so powerful it moves us to tears

In her project Intra-Venus, artist Hannah Wilke — whose beautiful nude body often was at the center of her 1970s art-making — presented a very different version of her once-voluptuous body. Wilke's body had become thick and awkward; her hair was gone, and intravenous tubes disappeared into her arms.

Wilke's nakedness was now the nakedness of terminal illness, of resignation to the fact that one's body is now the dominion of doctors, nurses and disease.

Walking through the Atlanta College of Art Gallery that day, I felt an intense heat spreading through me, that sudden convulsive sensation before inevitable tears. I was watching Wilke die of the lymphoma that finally claimed her in 1993. It took me by surprise. I began to cry.

And on top of that overwhelming sadness was embarrassment — embarrassment at not being able to keep my emotions in check, shame because an art gallery is not the appropriate place to show feelings.

That implicit law of museum decorum — stoic, emotional detachment — is one of the paradoxes of an art world where work is meant to provoke feeling — rage, heartbreak, sadness, despair, empathy.

Four years ago, gallery owner Susan Bridges took a trip to the stark desert town of Marfa, Texas, where minimalist sculptor Donald Judd has set up a colony devoted to the exhibition of his own and other minimalists.

"The sunlight as we entered the first building, came in ... and it hit those huge Donald Judds at this particular angle," Bridges recalls, "and it just took my breath away. And then I looked out over at this field where Judd's sculptures are placed. And just beyond that a horse was running in the pasture.

"And it was just too much," she concludes. "The beauty just got to me, and I started crying."

Bridges has also witnessed extreme emotional responses to some of her Whitespace Gallery exhibitions. For instance, Georgia photographer David Yoakley Mitchell's simple image of a train in his exhibition about home and family, Glennville, (through Nov. 4) has reduced three female visitors to tears.

"Each time after they left, I went in and looked at the train," says Bridges, "and tried to understand why they became so emotional, and it didn't make sense to me. But that's the great thing about art: You just never know."

Why certain artworks inspire such a profound emotional reaction is often mysterious, even mystical. Everything from cool, seemingly "unemotional" minimalism to acknowledged masterpieces and cerebral contemporary works have provoked strong reactions in Atlanta art-goers.

Jenna Andrews-McClymont wants to know why. Already possessing a master's degree in art history from the University of London, Andrews-McClymont currently is working on a Ph.D. in psychology at Emory University, studying the emotional effects of artworks.

"Something about the immediacy of the expression in art jumps out at us and sometimes triggers these really intense feelings," she says, in accounting for artworks' mysterious emotional triggers. "It's sort of penetrating this kind of well-protected seal that many of us walk around with."

Sometimes, the penetration can be startling. Asked about the only time she ever wept at an exhibition, painter Judy Rushin admits, "I wish it were a cooler show. But ... I remember when I saw the Van Gogh in Arles show in 1984 at the Met, it made me cry.

"I could viscerally feel his presence in these pieces, especially in the drawings," Rushin continues. "The texture that he uses, and the patterning was so vividly drawn that the drawings almost seemed to breathe in and out off the wall."

Sam Romo specializes in contemporary conceptual work at his Castleberry Hill gallery, and yet the artwork that inspired his most emotional response was Michelangelo's classic sculpture "David" at Florence's Gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti.

"It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen," he said, then paused before asking, "How could a human ever do such a thing?"

There even is a syndrome ascribed to the profound sentiments that great art can elicit in viewers — first identified in the 1970s by Italian psychologist Graziella Magherini. He observed an intense, psychosomatic response, often resulting in hospitalization, to the works of art housed in the cradle city of the Italian Renaissance, Florence.

But the "Stendhal syndrome," as it became known, is only an extreme example of the way artworks act upon our senses and overwhelm us.

"Last year, I visited MOMA and came across two of de Kooning's black-and-white paintings, and they literally stopped me in my tracks," remembers Saltworks Gallery manager Christina Caudill of her own unanticipated reaction to an artwork. "I had read the recent biography on him, which gave a very detailed account of his struggles ... the fact that he was so poor that he couldn't afford artist paint and had to use household enamels — he could barely afford food.

"Knowing all of this history made me break down in tears."

Artist Ann-Marie Manker says she is consistently moved by "the visual drama" of monumental work: "It's just finding awe in human creation."

Being moved by art is an acknowledgment that beyond the realms of power, money, self-interest and ego in which art also occupies, it exists in a more rarefied zone.

There are glimpses of the mystical and the transcendent in considering objects, often centuries old, and marveling at their astonishing endurance.

Perhaps we cry because we recognize, in art's capacity to endure and stretch across barriers of time and space, our own mortality.

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