I am a big proponent for slowing down to look more closely at art when visiting museums. Sometimes, instead of scrambling to see as many works as possible (and finding that few stick), that means focusing in on just a small number of works during a visit. One game I like to play with myself in order to slow down is to see if I can find any images hidden in plain sight within an artwork. Finding a mirror in a work will usually achieve that end, but there are so many different potential possibilities and perspectives! Here are five artworks featuring images within images I’ve seen while spending some time with the MoMA collection, several of which are currently on view on the fourth and fifth floors:
1. Otto Dix. Dr. Mayer-Hermann. 1926
The mirror in this painting functions like a grim halo around Dr Mayer-Hermann’s head, dingy with his knowledge of disease. The dim view in the mirror shows the rest of the examining room in stark contrast to the brightness of the almost comically round doctor.
2. Max Pechstein. Dancer in the Mirror (Tänzerin im Spiegel). 1923
Mirrors are often used to make a room look bigger. In this case, however, the mirror serves to bring the opposite wall closer: you see the front and the back of the dancer, as well as the audience, in one tight shot. When I first saw this work, I thought the mirror was positioned like the one in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, but as I looked longer, I realized the mirror is not directly behind the dancer on the stage, but on the other side of the audience. Or is it?
3. Henri Matisse. The Piano Lesson. 1916
Though The Piano Lesson plays the artwork within artwork game more subtly than Matisse’s The Red Studio on the other side of Gallery 6 on the fifth floor, it’s no secret that there are allusions to other works by Matisse in opposite corners of the painting. See it in person and you’ll be able to discern the piano instructor’s larger and more detailed counterpart, Woman on a High Stool. The inclusion of the artworks within The Piano Lesson suggests a parallel with the primary subject of the painting, Matisse’s son hard at work at the piano.
4. Leslie Hewitt. Riffs on Real Time. 2002–5
In this photograph, one of 10 in a series recently on view in XL: 19 New Acquisitions in Photography, the images within the image aren’t hidden at all. The layout of a snapshot on top of an issue of Ebony Magazine (featuring 25 smaller Ebony Magazine covers!) on top of a wooden floor may initially appear casual, undermining significance of the juxtaposition. The white television screen in the snapshot is a placeholder for yet another image, perhaps one of the cultural figures on the magazine cover.
5. Robert Smithson. Mirror Stratum. 1966
I love the simple formal elegance of this piece, which belies its multifacetedness. It feels like a cheat to include this on the list, given that Smithson didn’t directly incorporate an image within his sculpture. The pyramid structure itself almost asks you to disregard the fact that it’s made of a reflective material, given the way each progressively smaller square interrupts the surface of the one before it, and instead appreciate the total materiality of a mirror itself. But a mirror is still a mirror -– stand back and you see the distorted image of Lawrence Weiner’s A wall pitted by a single air rifle shot reflected from the wall behind the Smithson piece in the fourth-floor gallery. If one’s ability to see the image reflected is challenged by the structure of the mirror, is the whole worth more or less than the sum of its parts?