Korean-born artist Lee Ufan is best known for his commanding land-art installations and sculptures made of steel and stone. But I fell in love with a small slab of clay that hung on a white wall at the Pace Gallery. It was flat and mostly empty, except for the imprint of Lee’s thumb pushing into its surface.
I didn’t touch the art, nor did I witness its making. But when I looked at the piece, I felt it all: the speed at which his thumb had moved; the softness—and resistance—of the clay; its slight warmth and later coldness; the slab’s weight when he picked it up to inspect it.
I started using clay to create sculptures a few months ago, and I’ve been immersed in an exploration of pressing and squishing. I assumed that I was affected by Lee’s piece because I was so newly infatuated with the medium. But now, as I view art exhibits that range from drawing to video to multimedia, I have the same reaction: I’m aware of feeling the artworks as well as seeing them. My back feels the burden of the tire in Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram. My arm feels the flicking of paint in Jackson Pollock’s One:Number 31, 1950. In other words, Lee’s small, but distinctly physical gesture triggered a wake-up call to my sense of touch.
As visual artists, we have a finely tuned sense of sight. We value it above all other senses. But if we consider the sense of touch, we start to realize that it has an equally powerful—but often neglected—role in how we respond to art.
Think about it: everything we see is informed by what we consciously and unconsciously recognize about touch. We look at a silk scarf, and we know that it glides smoothly across a bare arm, but catches on Velcro. A raw carrot resists; a baked potato gives way. But in our contemplation of art, we typically focus on—and stop short at—the visual. Our language refers to patterns, forms and colors. Our sense of touch in our encounters with art is undernourished and undervalued. What a loss!
There are lots of places to lay the blame for our negligence. First, we could argue that sculpture deserves tactile consideration, but not painting, photography or other 2-D works of art. This led me to think about a camera obscura photograph by Abelardo Morell. It features an upside-down projection of the Santa Maria della Salute church on the bedroom wall in a Venetian palazzo. I saw the photograph after I had spent a summer in Venice. My room there was not in a palazzo, but its view included a portion of that church, and its furnishings were of a similar period.
I’ve always described the photograph with a purely visual vocabulary: the sharply focused church, a bouquet of bright pink flowers, ornate frames around pictures and mirrors. Now when I look at the image, I imagine the feel of its contents: The hard terrazzo floor is cool to the feet on a hot and humid day. The dresser drawers scrape when they are pulled open. The frames are heavy and accumulate dust in their crevasses.
We could also blame our contemporary society and culture. All day long, we navigate our lives with our fingertips tapping and sliding over glass. You may have seen the diagram called a cortical homunculus. It explains the areas of our bodies’ greatest sensitivity using exaggerated depictions of parts of the human figure. For example, the hands are huge compared with the torso and legs. It’s ironic: our magnificent capacity of discerning our world through our fingers has been relegated to a slick surface of nothingness.
And, of course, museums and galleries don’t allow us to touch the art. The reasons are obvious and sensible: physical contact threatens the works’ longevity and preservation. But it’s enlightening to note the history of museums, and visitors’ urge, and even expectation, to handle items. In her book The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch, Constance Classen discusses the sense of touch from diverse perspectives, including religion, sex, war and medicine. In the section “Touch in the Museum,” she writes, “In 1786, German traveler Sophie von La Roche wrote of her visit to the British Museum, ‘Nor could I restrain my desire to touch the ashes of an urn on which a female figure was being mourned. I felt it gently, with great feeling. … I pressed the grain of dust between my fingers tenderly, just as her best friend might have once grasped her hand.’”
Later in the book, Classen quotes the 18th-century philosopher Denis Diderot: “Of all the senses, the eye [is] the most superficial … [and] touch the most profound and the most philosophical.” The next time you look at art, try to see what it feels like.