How to Look at Everything

Overview

By simply learning how to look at the world around us more creatively we can experience life more fully, David Finn assures us. In this newest title in Abrams' popular "How to Look at . . ." series, the acclaimed photographer reveals-in a charming, intimate, conversational text and evocative photographs-how to develop an enriched way of seeing. Writing on such themes as "the mind's eye," "the gift of light," and "forms that shape our lives," Finn, who has authored three previous titles in the "How to Look at . . ...
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Overview

By simply learning how to look at the world around us more creatively we can experience life more fully, David Finn assures us. In this newest title in Abrams' popular "How to Look at . . ." series, the acclaimed photographer reveals-in a charming, intimate, conversational text and evocative photographs-how to develop an enriched way of seeing. Writing on such themes as "the mind's eye," "the gift of light," and "forms that shape our lives," Finn, who has authored three previous titles in the "How to Look at . . ." series, implores readers to experience the world visually with sensitivity, imagination, and passion. He shares his own personal view of how to enjoy more intensely the pleasures that make life truly worth living: beautiful sights, fascinating objects, shared experiences, and warm companionship. 70 photographs, 30 in full color, 6 x 8"
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Finn, who previously wrote How To Look at Photographs and How To Look at Sculpture, has broadened his scope in this delightful and personable book, which could well be used as a textbook for an art appreciation class. The subject of the book is "not what we look at, but how we can open our minds and hearts to see more than the literal image and be inspired by the vision." Amid tasteful illustrations, this engaging source touches on subjects such as "the mind's eye," "the gift of light," "forms that shape our lives," and "music to the eye." The meandering discussion is eclectic and informative, often including poetry and quoting various historical figures: "There appears to be something about seeing that reaches deep into the psyche and is quite apart from other mental faculties. Leonardo da Vinci called it `the best and most noble' of our senses." The overall perspective, however, is Finn's own, refreshingly open-minded and not strictly based in the Western tradition. Recommended for all public libraries.--Jennifer L.S. Moldwin, Detroit Inst. of Arts Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810927261
  • Publisher: Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Pages: 144
  • Lexile: 1240L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The
Mind's
Eye


THE WORD EVERYTHING IN THE TITLE OF THIS BOOK may seem too all-encompassing, but I have in mind the incredible range of things we can see when our mind pays attention to the images transmitted by our eyes. Everything includes the stars in the sky, the branches on a tree, a matchbox cover. It includes anything we may see at any time in any place. Our subject, however, is not what we look at, but how we can open our minds and hearts to see more than the literal image and be inspired by the vision that takes place in our minds. As the painter Agnes Martin put it, "when your eyes are open you see beauty in anything."

    Think of looking at the sky on a clear night and seeing the pinpoints of light against a dark background. Speculating about those stars is one of the most provocative experiences known to mankind. Ancient cultures built entire beliefs about time, eternity, and the meaning of existence around the movement of the stars. The Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy once wrote that when he followed the movement of the stars he felt that his feet no longer touched the earth. He found himself in the company of Zeus, feasting on the food of the gods.

    Many different images of the universe have formed in the minds of people gazing at the stars. For example, in Adrienne Rich's poem, "For the Conjunction of Two Planets," she wrote:


We smile at astrological hopes
And leave the sky to expert men
Who do not reckon horoscopes
But painfully extend their ken
In mathematical debate
With slide and photographic plate.


And yet, protest it if we will,
Some corner of the mind retains
The medieval man, who still
Keeps watch upon those starry skeins
And drives us out of doors at night
To gaze at anagrams of light.


Whatever register or law
Is drawn in digits for these two,
Venus and Jupiter keep their awe,
Wardens of brilliance, as they do
Their dual circuit of the west —
The brightest planet and her guest.


Is any light so proudly thrust
From darkness on our lifted faces
A sign of something we can trust,
Or is it that in starry places
We see the things we long to see
In fiery iconography?


    When we read of new discoveries made by astronomers, looking at the stars can give us a sense of the incomprehensible vastness of the universe (or universes). We somehow feel in touch through our eyes with an ultimate reality that we do not understand and probably will never know.

    We may have a similar feeling when we pick up a pebble that attracts our eye on a dirt road and wonder how it got there; we hold it in the palm of our hand as if it were a precious stone, and perhaps keep it as a memento. Cars in a busy street can make us think about the quality of our lives as we move faster and faster from place to place. The look and behavior of "dumb" animals create a sense of kinship that belies an assumption of their ignorance and lack of feeling. The face of a beautiful child—or the faces of a mother and child—radiate qualities that ennoble us all. I have taken photographs of my grandchildren every year since they were born; at the time of this writing the oldest is twenty-six years old, and the youngest is eleven, so I have accumulated a lot of photographs! I never tire of looking at the faces of youngsters; they are all beautiful.

    One of the most moving photographs of a child I have ever seen was taken by William Boorstein in the central highlands of Irion Jaya, Indonesia, the western half of the island of New Guinea. "I met this Yali woman and child," Boorstein wrote, "as I was walking along a mountain trail above the village of Membahan. (Yali is the name of the tribal group.) The beads were gifts from western missionaries." The detail of the face of the child against the mother's breast is extraordinary. One can almost feel the intimacy and sense of protection experienced by the child and the pride and joy of the mother, even though one cannot see her face.

    There are times when a random sight turns out to have significance for us in ways that are hard to describe. When the photographer Marilyn Ellner accompanied a group of New York City students to China on a trip organized by the American Forum for Global Education, one of her favorite shots was of a young child playing peek-a-boo with her from behind some intricately carved stonework. Somehow, in revealing through her camera lens the accident of that momentary eye contact with the Chinese child, the American photographer brilliantly expressed the universality of human experience in her affecting image.

    Association plays a key role in what the mind's eye sees. Thus, when we look at homeless people in the streets we may be reminded of the images of suffering created by Donatello, Goya, and Rembrandt, or seen through the camera lens of Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange, and Louis Hine. These associations may cause us to feel particular sorrow for the fate of fellow humans who are living in such appalling conditions.

    The mind's eye incorporates what we know with what we see. Since each of us has a unique conglomeration of facts, memories, associations, and speculations in our heads, what one mind's eye sees at any moment is very different from what another mind's eye sees. Artists, writers, and personal friends can open our eyes to what they see and thereby enlarge our vision, but ultimately the images that form in our brains are our own.

    Sometimes we even invent what we see. "Those images that yet/Fresh images beget" wrote the poet Yeats. The images in our mind are the product of an active imagination that continuously creates new "realities." Some years ago there was a plan to create a monumental, five-hundred-foot-high figure of the revered Sioux hero, Chief Crazy Horse, commemorating the achievements of this great leader by carving the largest mountain sculpture in the world in the Black Hills of South Dakota. If I recall correctly, some members of the tribe objected to the project on the grounds that they did not need to carve up a whole mountain to remember him. By looking at a beautiful sunset, watching a bird fly, or looking at a cloud drifting by they could remember the spirit of Crazy Horse. That was their way of seeing the image of their revered ancestor.

    There is an inner eye that creates the mind's image for what the senses sense. In some religious traditions this inner eye has been described as the soul itself. Hindus have sometimes called the soul "the seer" or "the knower," believing that it was like a great eye in the center of one's being through which one could see "reality."

    That inner eye not only "sees" but hears as well. Music, which reaches us through our sense of hearing, enables us to see an aspect of the world we cannot see with our eyes. The German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote that music was a miracle halfway between spirit and matter, a sort of nebulous mediator that was both like and unlike the things it mediates.

    People who are denied the use of their senses sometimes "see" with greater sharpness than others do. Homer and Milton, both blind, visualized their worlds of imagination with unsurpassed vividness. The incredible Helen Keller, who was blind, deaf, and mute, once put her fingers on the lips of a rabbi while he was uttering a prayer after a meal, and said (by communicating to the palm of her companion's hand) that she had just "heard the voice of God."

    Helen Keller's hands were clearly sensitized beyond anything most of us can imagine. But if we look at our hands with a fresh eye, we can have a glimpse of what hidden resources they may contain. Holding them up to the light brings to mind the subtleties of the sense of touch that many of us too often take for granted. The gesture of thrusting one's hands into the air in itself suggests embracing the world around us. A sculpture by the twentieth-century sculptor Gaston Lachaise shows a woman's hands thrust into the air as a way of expressing pride in her being. Another sculpture with a similar pose, on the grounds of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, expresses the ideal of reaching ever-new heights of human achievement.

    The striving for excellence on the part of champion athletes was a favorite subject for the artists of ancient Greece. One of the treasures of the archaeological museum in Athens is "The Jockey," a small boy riding his great horse. The position of the figure's arms and legs, the determined look on the face, the garments flowing in the wind, all communicate a powerful sense of movement caught in an instant of time. Today we watch the performance of world-class ice skaters, skiers, gymnasts, and those engaged in competitive-sports, in awe as they show us their strength, grace, and versatility. The art of ballet reveals the beauty of male and female figures as they move their limbs to expressive musical passages, enabling the sensitive eye to see the movement of the human body as one of nature's masterpieces.

    The interplay of the arms and legs of dancers is echoed in a variety of man-made structures, which we sometimes find in unexpected places and from unusual vantage points. I once visited the sculptor Eduardo Chillida in his home in San Sebastian, Spain, and on a large stretch of rolling land called Zabalaga, owned by the sculptor's foundation and where many of his works are sited, I saw an old barn that he had restored. Inside, there were wonderful beams holding the structure together, and in one corner I was fascinated by mighty wooden arms reaching out to support the roof. In another anthropomorphic play, at the edge of the sea below Chillida's home, he had created great metal forms that resembled clutching fingers reaching out from the rocks into the sky. Chillida calls the sculpture The Comb of the Wind.

    One of the secrets of the art of looking is the ability to focus on details. That is not very different from shopping in a store where your eye picks out from a multitude of objects those that happen to interest you. The trick is to know what you are looking for. In a supermarket, you may be trying to find a particular brand, or size of container, or item on sale; if you are a practiced shopper you will know how to find what you seek. You also may be able to pick out a sought-after book in a wall of bookshelves because you remember something about the jacket.

    Much the same process takes place when your eye is glancing around you wherever you are, and looking for something that may be esthetically moving. Even the smallest and most common object can make a profound impression. "I can look at a knot of wood," William Blake once told a friend, "till I am frightened by it." The photographer Paul Strand once said, "What I have explored all my life is the world at my doorstep ... The things that come close to me today are those literally only a few feet away in our garden."

    By looking carefully at things that excite us we can train our eyes to see what others may not notice. My wife, Laura, loves jewelry created by the Italian designer Mario Buccellati, and whenever we visit one of his stores she can spend literally hours looking at the intricate workmanship of pins, rings, and bracelets. Sometimes we have purchased precious stones on our travels to Japan, India, or South America and brought them to our friend Elena Morandi, who has run the Florence Buccellati store for many years and who helps design pieces of jewelry in which our stones can be set. I think sharing this creative endeavor has sharpened my eyes, and Laura's, too, to the artistry of minute metalworking. It has also enhanced our appreciation of jewelry and other works of art that we find in museums. Similarly, the lifelong friendship that we have enjoyed with a master carpenter, Anthony Ricevuto, and the sensitivity to his superb craftsmanship that this friendship has fostered, has made us admirers of fine woodworking whenever we come across it.

     Among the best teachers I have had to sharpen my eyes are trees. I love the delicacy of branches so beautifully portrayed in Chinese paintings through the centuries. I have long marveled at the quick brushstrokes of those paintings, which capture the graceful twists and turns of arboreal growth. I have also learned a good deal from the paintings of Corot, who seems to have had a unique ability to depict trees as they rise up from the ground and branch out with such remarkable grace. Our family had a tree in our garden that we especially treasured. It was a Japanese apple tree, and our children and grandchildren always loved to climb as high as they could and sit on various perches. In the spring bright red blossoms bloomed for a few days as a herald of the new season. In the summer it spread out its leaves to create a canopy to protect us from the heat. In the fall, it was one of the last trees to shed its leaves, and it retained its autumn colors almost to the end. In winter, its twisting branches cast a symphony of shadows on the snow. We called it "the marrying tree" since all our children were married under it. It was one of our most precious possessions. I once painted a portrait of that much-loved tree as part of a series inspired by Keats's Endymion; it seemed a perfect image to accompany the lines, "An endless fountain of immortal drink/Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink." The tree seemed filled with an infinity of visual delights. In time we found that the leaves were thinning out, and we worried that it was getting old. We fed it in the hope of extending its life and periodically cut off branches in the hope that it would give new strength to the rest of the limbs. But eventually we lost the battle and the tree died. We were heartbroken.

    When we called a tree man to cut our tree down, I thought I saw the forms of a dancer in the branches that were left. Although I had looked at that tree a thousand times, I had never seen those before. I asked the tree man to leave the trunk and those few branches for me to contemplate. Then I had the idea of carving the dancer out of the tree. It took me several years to do so, and I had to work around many parts of the wood that had decayed, but finally I succeeded. Our marrying tree now lives on as a life-sized dancer mounted in my office where I can enjoy its re-creation, and relive the many visual pleasures it has given me over the years.

    As I have grown older, I have found more and more to admire in trees. I think they create some of the most wonderful living forms one can find anywhere. So fascinated am I by their qualities that I have made it a ritual to paint a watercolor of a tree every weekend for a number of years. I always find something new to excite my eye and brush; painting that watercolor is my way of paying homage to the life force that produced those extraordinary forms. Each painting is like a prayer in which I celebrate the remarkable gracefulness of the sturdy trunks, the twisting and turning branches, and the changing foliage in spring, summer, and fall. I date those paintings as if they were my diary, a record of the experiences I have from week to week that enrich my life.

    What is it that goes on in our brains that transforms commonplace sights into images that can have this kind of effect? Perhaps some neurological discovery will be made one day that will explain how it happens. People who know how to meditate deeply have described the sense of awareness of the outer world and the feeling of oneness with the universe that accompanies the state of ecstasy they achieve. Others have testified to the sharpness of vision that is induced by certain drugs. But great artists may have developed their own sight-enhancing practices. They know how to trigger the nerve-endings in their brain that make seeing more than just looking. The artist Henri Matisse used to tell his students that the inner feeling they had when looking at something was more important than what they saw literally with their eyes. What was important was to "render the emotion" awakened within them. He urged them to close their eyes and hold the vision, and they would see the object better than with their eyes open. In his essay "Exactitude is not the Truth," Matisse wrote that conviction does not depend on "the exact copying of natural forms ... but on the profound feeling of the artist before the objects that he has chosen, on which his attention is focused and the spirit of which he has penetrated."

    Matisse would have been fascinated by the strange case of Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic child who, at the age of twelve, appeared in a 1987 BBC documentary entitled "The Foolish Wise Ones." Although Stephen's verbal skills were negligible and he did not appear to relate to other people, he possessed an uncanny visual memory of scenes that he looked at for an instant and then could reproduce in a drawing with astonishing accuracy. In the aftermath of the excitement caused by the television program, Stephen was taken, under the auspices of several sponsors, on visits to New York, Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Leningrad. The meticulous drawings he produced of those cities were published in a book entitled Stephen Wiltshire, Floating Cities (1991), and it included such startling images as a view of the Palace Square in Leningrad, drawn as if Stephen had seen it from high above. The eminent neurologist Oliver Sachs, who accompanied Stephen on his trip to Russia, wrote that the youth had "immense powers of perceiving detail, of spatial sense, of draughtsmanship, of memory," which was inexplicable in a child who would always be in need of special care. Despite the limitations in one part of his brain, the sharpness of his mind's eye was extraordinary.

    There appears to be something about seeing that reaches deep into the psyche and is quite apart from other mental faculties. Leonardo DaVinci called it "the best and the most noble" of our senses. He asked, "Do you not see how the eye embraces the beauty of the whole world?" Emerson once referred to himself as a "transparent eyeball," through which "the currents of the Universal being" circulated.

    Novelists have often focused on the nature or mood or experience of their characters by describing the look in their eyes, or the way they look at others. When my grandson, Matthew Bloomgarden, was seventeen years old, he wrote a report on "The Eyes of Dostoyevsky." In the novelist's Crime and Punishment, Matthew observed that "Dostoyevsky reveals insights into the characters themselves, their emotions and their thoughts, when he describes details about eyes." Raskolnikov's eyes were described as "dry, feverish, piercing;" Sonia's as "tortured." Marmeladov's eyes "seemed to glitter with a kind of exultation—there was perhaps some understanding and intelligence in them, but at the same time there was also something that looked very much like madness." Raskolnikov thought that Lisaveta and Sonia had a way of gazing "at you with their meek and gentle eyes." Alyona Ivanovna had "two sharp and mistrustful eyes ... something like a sneer in her eyes." Elsewhere there are references to "dreadful, stern, jeering eyes," and in another instance to "gentle blue eyes, which could flash with such fire, such strong emotion." Later, with Raskolnikov, "it was as though a flame had blazed up in his lusterless eyes ..." Porfiry's face "would have been good humored but for the expression of his eyes, with a sort of faintly watery glint in them, covered with almost white, blinking eyelashes which conveyed the impression that he was constantly winking at someone."

    Eyes are magical as communicators in what they reveal to others as well as what they can perceive for the viewer. In a major exhibition of the works of Modigliani at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1995, I was especially moved by a charcoal self-portrait of the artist as a young man, an image that portrayed only his eyes. The idea of showing the artist's eyes alone was an original one. When I looked at those eyes I felt as if he had made a creative statement of remarkable significance. Just showing his eyes without the rest of his facial features seemed to me to reveal what he saw as he looked out into the world. I intuitively felt that what he saw with his eyes was more than what most other people saw with their eyes. Modigliani's eyes suggested the power and working of a remarkable mind. I sensed a burning desire to search for the unknown, a fierce determination to create what no one else has ever seen before. As an original artist who had a tremendous impact on the twentieth century, his eyes were prophetic. His whole life was dedicated to his unique vision. His eyes were not only windows into his soul for us, but windows into the world for him.

    It occurred to me that it might be generally true that when looking at artists' eyes in self-portraits, we can become conscious of something more than an insight into the personality of the subject. It is not just the revelation of the artists' character that we can find in their eyes, but a picture of eyes that have the power to look at everything with great concentration. We can imagine in their expression what it must be like to see the world around them with an extraordinarily penetrating eye.

    The most uncanny experience I ever had looking into the eyes portrayed by an artist occurred when I was photographing a reliquary of San Rossore for a book on Donatello. The sculpture was in a chapel of the church of S. Stefano dei Cavalieri in Pisa. Fortunately, the sacristan permitted me to spend as much time as I wanted to photograph it from every angle. At one point, when I focused my camera for a close-up of the face, I gasped in astonishment. Looking through my viewfinder at the eyes of the sculpture, I had the feeling that I was looking into the soul of Donatello himself. The eyes of Donatello's sculptures of prophets and other religious figures had always intrigued me, for they seemed to be looking at some spiritual reality that ordinary mortals could not see. But somehow these eyes were different. I could not explain why, but the close-up view of the face mesmerized me, and it proved to be one of my favorite shots when it was subsequently published. Some years later I read an article in a scholarly publication by Anita F. Moskowitz, who suggested for the first time that the sculpture of San Rossore might in fact have been a self-portrait of Donatello, an unexpected corroboration of what I had felt when seeing it with my camera eye.

    Subsequently, I had a different but related experience when I studied two self-portraits by Rembrandt in the National Gallery in London. One was painted when Rembrandt was thirty-four years old, in 1640. The stance, of the figure is said to have been inspired by Titian's portrait of "A Man with a Blue Sleeve" in the National Gallery in London, which in the seventeenth century was thought to be a portrait of the famous Italian poet, Ludovico Ariosto. The painting had been sold at auction in Amsterdam in 1639, just a year before Rembrandt painted this self-portrait. By taking on the same pose as the Titian portrait, Rembrandt may have been trying to identify himself with Ariosto and thereby stake a claim for himself as a great artist.

    The other self-portrait, which is in the same gallery, was painted some twenty-nine years later, in 1669, when Rembrandt was sixty-three years old. This was the year that he died, after having gone through a number of painful trials in the last years of his life, including personal bankruptcy and the death of his only son. The contrast in the general appearance of the two self-portraits was remarkable. The early painting showed a proud and self-assured artist; the later painting showed a humble, self-denigrating elderly man without pretensions. And when I cupped my hands to focus attention on the eyes alone, I thought I saw something more. Unless it was my imagination, I was convinced that I saw in the eyes of the young man a sense of supreme self-confidence. No artistic challenge would be too daunting for him. He saw himself as a master at the height of his powers. The eyes in the other self-portrait were those of a man who had been humbled by life's experiences. Although only sixty-three years old, he thought of himself as an old man who had suffered painful hardships. His eyes seemed to say that he was long past the feeling of pride in his abilities or of being impressed with his fame. His eyes were weary, almost as if they had seen too much. He no longer looked forward to what life might bring to him in the future. Ironically, in portraying himself in that spirit he produced one of his supreme masterpieces.

    Almost as compelling as Rembrandt's self-portraits is the famous self-portrait drawing by Leonardo DaVinci, now in the Royal Library in Turin, which has become something of an icon in the history of art. I wondered if the carefully drawn eyes show a man who feels sure of his analytical ability to reproduce in a precise way what he sees, or what his fertile mind invents. I could not seem to read as much in this drawing as I could in the Rembrandt painting. For one thing, Leonardo showed himself looking away from the viewer, and for another, the eyes did not seem as personal or revealing as Rembrandt's. Still, I thought I could sense the power of Leonardo's brain in those carefully delineated eyes.

    Then I looked at many other images in books I have in my library and let my imagination roam. In Goya's self-portraits, did I not see a man who looked at the world with a highly critical eye, a satirical judgment on the follies of mankind, a bitterness about the evils brought about by human cruelty? In Van Gogh's self-portraits, did I not see the eyes of a man who was almost frightened by the beauty he saw in everything around him? I looked at the eyes in self-portraits by Ghiberti, Dearer, Michelangelo, El Greco, Ingres, Cézanne, Matisse, and Beckman. They all seemed to convey something distinctive.

    These were, after all, the seers of the world!

    By looking at their eyes in their self-portraits I thought I could not only glimpse something of their inner selves but also have an idea of the special gift that enabled them to see—and portray for us—a unique vision of the world around them.

    When I was in the National Gallery in London recently, I spent some time, as I always try to do, in front of Van Eyck's portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, a favorite of mine since childhood. With his visionary eyes, Van Eyck was able to depict details I never tire of looking at. I was amazed once again by the reflections in the concave mirror (including the reflection of the artist himself, painting the picture) the texture of the wooden sandals lying randomly on the floor and the slippers further back in the room, the glistening metal of chandeliers, the brilliance of small glass panels in a half-opened window, the folds of fine cloth and the fur of the garments, and the dog wagging his tail in the foreground. There are so many details that I could go on for pages describing them. I also marveled at the expressions on the faces, the grandeur of the gestures, the perfectly harmonized composition, and the colors of the painting. All this is what Van Eyck's amazingly sharp eyes saw in the scene in front of him.

    Artists open our eyes to the world in different ways. Once we have seen Van Gogh's paintings of sunflowers, wheat fields, and cypresses, we may forevermore see those things as he saw them. And the same is true of later artists who have their own way of forcing us to look at commonplace objects in new ways. With Duchamps's "Urinal," for instance, we look at an ordinary piece of plumbing equipment as a work of sculpture because he took it out of its usual setting in a men's restroom and mounted it on a pedestal as a work of art. The same happens to us when we see Lichtenstein's comic strip paintings. They look almost identical to the real thing, but he has seen them in a way that opens our eyes to a new way of looking at these commonplace images—with his clean, sharp lines, with dots and other patterns covering large areas, with bright colors, all carefully composed and painted as if the subject was a vivid landscape. We may make similar discoveries with Christo's umbrellas, running fences, and wrapped buildings, or Oldenberg's giant shuttlecock, eraser, electric plug, and clothespin. All these are objects that we are so used to seeing that we may not bother to look at them with a sensitive eye until an artist jars our senses and shows us what we have been missing.

    Many people make such discoveries in different ways. My wife and I for years have spent Saturday mornings going to what are called in our part of the country "tag sales," sometimes called "estate sales." These are held in private homes near where we live, in New York's Westchester County. Couples may have retired and moved south, or they may have bought a new house, or they may have died. Everything not wanted by the family is up for sale, and this can include hundreds of objects ranging from furniture, to works of art, clothing, jewelry, books, and often an amazing variety of objects that have been collected over the years. When we started our Saturday morning adventures, I felt as if we were invading people's private lives, or scavenging among things we wanted to buy that might have been precious to the previous owners for personal reasons. But my wife has persuaded me that the people who originally owned these objects might well like the idea that others who love the things they owned have now acquired them for their families.

    What often amazes me in those tag sales is seeing what people have kept in their homes as mementos, often things of no special monetary value, but which obviously meant something special to the owners. Among the objects I have picked up at these tag sales are an ancient plane that is still sharp, a beautifully shaped scissors, a brass spigot, an African stool, and a miner's gas light. I always feel that I can see something in those objects that is especially meaningful, although often I can't explain why.

    In the course of my travels, many ordinary objects have caught my eye in the same way, and I have made a habit of making them part of my life. Once when I visited a cotton spinning plant owned by Springs Industries in South Carolina, I was dazzled to see hundreds of spools of cotton thread automatically rotated on holders as the cloth was made. Seeing several spools in a waste-bin, I took one to keep on my office desk. At another time, when I was visiting a steel plant in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a group of curiously shaped steel objects were stacked on a shelf; the shapes were so striking to me I took one of them to keep as a work of art. In Venice I bought an oarlock for a gondola that looks like a sculpture by Jean Arp. At another time in Lima, Peru, I saw some men on the beach making a large canoe out of reeds, and I couldn't resist picking up one of the reeds that lay on the sand to add to my collection. When I was at a construction site in Bilbao, Spain, where the extraordinary new structure designed by Frank Gehry as the new Guggenheim Museum was being built, I found a wonderfully rusted and partially scarred rectangular section of a metal casing; it now sits on my mantelpiece as a treasured sculpture. In Alaska I found a broken piece of ivory that seemed to be part of a sled; the shape made by the accidental break makes the piece especially striking for me. It now sits on a tabletop in my dining room. In Ghent, I found a half-dozen small weaving spindles and later tied them together with a string to make an appealing composition. In the Cotswolds I found an old lock mounted in a wooden frame with a rich patina on the metal casing.

    I can't explain my attraction to these objects in traditional esthetic terms—pointing to a beautiful curve here, a striking composition there, a powerful statement about life. They are just objects that appealed to me at a particular moment, and some instinct within me made me want to keep them. The images in my mind were formed by associations of which I was at best only vaguely conscious, and the intersection of these buried experiences with the objects I saw made me want to keep them.

    This is the instinct that has led me to become a collector: something in me is touched by an object, and I am prompted to acquire it. There may or may not be a practical value in the object, but I know that just to have it around or in my possession adds something to my life. My wife, Laura, also has this instinct. She collects models of owls, and we have scores of them in our home. She would be hard put to explain why she loves them but her eyes light up when she finds a new one to add to her collection. I collect books, although I cannot explain why. I read as many as I can, but I could not possibly read the thousands of books I have bought over the years. Partly, I know, I buy them because I would like to read them someday; but even if I cannot find the time to do so, having them around me gives me an inexplicable pleasure.

    Once when I was in Kenneth Clark's home in Saltwood, England, I asked him about one shelf in his library that contained very large books. He pulled one of them out and was clearly thrilled to show it to me. He probably hadn't looked at that book for years; but he knew that it was there, and occasionally, perhaps, glanced at its spine, along with those of all the other books on that and other shelves and just felt the pleasure of having it in his possession. That is how I feel about the books in my library. When I see them on the shelf, whether I have read them or not, they are part of my life, and I feel blessed by their presence.

    Perhaps the most fabulous collector I have known of miscellaneous objects is Nathan Ancell, the founder of Ethan Allen stores. Walking into his house in New Rochelle, New York, is an unforgettable experience. There is practically no room to stand in the house, let alone sit down. His tastes are broadly eclectic, ranging from Russian jewel boxes to a bewildering variety of canes, strange objects carved out of wood, models of all kinds, posters, bowls, sculptures, paintings—literally thousands of things. Most of them he has bought at antique shows, and he always has a great time negotiating with sellers to get a bargain price. There was never a plan in his head for what he would do with all these objects; just looking at something that fascinated him and deciding to add it to his collection gave him great joy. One time my wife and I admired a particularly lovely art nouveau sculpture on a shelf (along with dozens of others); Ancell picked it up and gave it to us. We have enjoyed displaying it in our dining room for years.

    So how does one look at everything through the mind's eye? This book will attempt to give some guidance; but the shorthand answer is with passion. One can be passionate about anything one sees-anything and everything. All it takes is the willingness to open your eyes and your heart, and let feelings grow strong within you. What you look at could be a blade of grass, or a branch of a tree, or the shadow on a wall, or a fabulous diamond on display in a jewelry store. Or it could be a bed of flowers in the garden that evokes the past, as in Donald Hall's moving poem, "Weeds and Peonies" written after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon:


Your peonies burst out, white as snow squalls,
with red flecks at their shaggy centers,
in your border of prodigies by the porch.
I carry one magnanimous blossom inside
to float in a glass bowl, as you used to do.


Ordinary happiness, remembered in sorrow,
blows like snow into the abandoned garden
to overcome daisies. Your blue coat
disappears up-mountain into imagined snowflakes
with Gus at your side, his great tail swinging;


but you will not return, tired and satisfied,
and sorrow's repeated particles suffuse the day
like the dog yipping through the entire night,
or the cat stretching awake, then curling
to dreams of her mother's milky nipples.


A raccoon dislodges a geranium from its pot.
Flowers, roots, and dirt lie upended
on bricks you set in the back garden's patio
where lilies begin their daily excursions
above stone walls, in the season of old roses.


I pace beside the weeds and snowy peonies,
staring at blue Kearsarge five miles south.
"Hurry back. Be careful, climbing down."
Your peonies lean their vast heads westward
as if they might topple. Some topple.


    The mind's eye is magical. Through it we can see loved ones who are no longer here, by looking at objects they owned that were precious to them. We can create works of art in our heads out of a special vision that we can nurture within us. One way that we can nurture this vision is by looking at art created by masters. These masterpieces can teach us how to transform what we look at with our naked eye, or what we imagine in our mind's eye. All we need is the will to do so.

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Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE: The Mind's Eye 6
CHAPTER TWO: The Gift of Light 28
CHAPTER THREE: Walking in the City 44
CHAPTER FOUR: Communing with Nature 56
CHAPTER FIVE: Forms That Shape Our Lives 78
CHAPTER SIX: Things, Common and Uncommon 98
CHAPTER SEVEN: Music to the Eye 118
INDEX 140
CREDITS 144
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