Frustrated? Confused? Have More Questions than Answers? Great!

A MoMA visitor examines Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel. (New York, 1951 [third version, after lost original of 1913]. Metal wheel mounted on painted wood stool. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Estate of Marcel Duchamp)

Looking at modern and contemporary art can provoke a lot of questions. Struggling to understand or relate to it is not unusual, and in fact many artists view those reactions as part of the art. Marcel Duchamp famously said that “the creative act is not formed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”[1] Often artists aim to elicit strong responses from viewers—in the case of Duchamp, challenging expectations that art should be beautiful, handmade, or unique.

Recently, I interviewed visitors in the galleries to find out what kinds of questions they had about some of the art they were viewing. The two works of art in MoMA’s collection selected for this study—Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1951, third version, after lost original of 1913) and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918)—have proven to be challenging to viewers since they were first created, and both famously presented radical ideas. Our goal was to see what interpretive content would help visitors better understand and engage with the works.

Visitors who were observed stopping and looking at either of these works were asked one or more (if prompting was needed) of these questions:

What’s one thing you’d like to know about this work of art?
If the artist or curator was standing by this work of art right now, what’s one thing you’d like to ask him or her about this work of art?
What piques your curiosity about this work of art?

A MoMA visitor takes a long look at Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918. Oil on canvas. 1935 Acquisition confirmed in 1999 by agreement with the Estate of Kazimir Malevich and made possible with funds from the Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest [by exchange])

After collecting and coding the visitors’ answers, we discovered that they were most interested in knowing what inspired artists to create the works they did and why they made the creative choices they did.

60% of visitors interviewed wanted to know why an artist made a particular work of art, what meaning it had for the artist, and what it was supposed to be or mean to viewers. One visitor asked of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, “What possessed the artist to make this? What did it mean to him at that time? What is it supposed to mean to us?” Another visitor looked at Malevich’s Suprematist Composition and wondered, “What is it supposed to be? What is the artist trying to show?”

Other categories of interest that emerged from this study included curatorial decisions and the materials and processes used by the artists.

As a follow-up to this study, MoMA staff participating in a cross-departmental research group each selected a work on view at the Museum and asked visitors one or more of the questions outlined above. From the expanded selection of works, a new category emerged. Visitors who were asked about more figurative works, such as Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, were interested in the social, historical, and personal context in which the work of art was made. They wanted to know what was going on at the time the work was created and how that might have influenced the artist.

What kinds of questions do have? If you were at MoMA right now and stumbled upon any of the works mentioned, what would you want to know?