REVIEW: Wise and Seductive Advice on How to Look at Art

How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art by David Salle

W. W. Norton,  288 pages

By Simone Grace Seol

When it comes to contemporary art, much is made of paintings that look like a child fell into a bucket of paint and crawled across a canvas.  Some may feel that the problem of how to see contemporary art ought to be preceded by the question of whether there is something worth seeing at all. David Salle's How to See says emphatically that, yes, there is plenty to see and that you, too, can be left little breathless once you can bring your attention and a willingness to be moved. Salle leads by example, seducing us to the joy and transformative potential of visual literacy.

How to See consists of 33 essays, most of which highlight a work of contemporary art (printed in black and white). The author is a painter-writer who originally contributed the essays appearing in the book to magazines such as Town & Country and exhibition catalogues. In each piece, he presents insights about the artist's craft, riffs on its ideas, and helps the reader to place the work in historical and intellectual context.

As an artist and writer, Salle is sensitive to the unique trepidation that viewers bring to visual art. Few would read a novel and then require a separate manifesto or dissertation from the author to make up their minds about what it means. Yet we too often look to the plaque on a museum wall to tell us what to think about a painting instead of trusting our first, unfiltered impression. Ancillary text cannot redeem or elevate the work itself, Salle insists: no one ever "loved a painting for the ideas it supposedly contains"; no painting is improved by the narrative one spins around it or the intention behind its creation. After all, it is not theoretical appreciation Salle is after, but love.

To get to love, Salle beckons us to take ownership of our reaction to art. He treats artists not as mere idea-pushers but as prophets of what might arguably be called romantic virtues, like "exhilaration" and "ravishment." He wants art to break us open, allowing for the possibility that it may transform the stale narratives of our lives. This almost old-fashioned vision of an aesthetic ideal inspires and challenges at a time when so much seeing has been replaced with theorizing, and too many would rather lecture and inculcate than affect.

Yet Salle sees his task as an author as pragmatic and down-to-earth. He wants to talk about art not as journalists or academics do, but as artists do amongst themselves -- with attention the nuts and bolts of the craft, the naked simplicity of "what works, what doesn't, and why." It turns out, this approach may be the most useful framework for lay viewers who want to enjoy art as well.

Salle's voice is brisk yet intimate, as though he is sitting across from you and on his second espresso. He walks us through a thorough and personable history of contemporary art, warm with humor and anecdotes of artists he's known firsthand. He draws on a broad cultural erudition to make "brilliant gestures of critical free association," as he calls them -- Alex Katz is "more Thoreau than Emerson" in his espousal of independence; the artists exhibiting at a 2014 MoMa survey use images that are "more like the folk melodies in Bartók -- present as understructure, there but not there."

Salle clues us in on things that it may take a painter's pair of eyes to see. He explains how a finished painting is a product of many kinetic and evanescent elements: how clouds shift at the precise time you are painting, how a movement of the shoulder marks a brush stroke in a certain way, and how that becomes permanent only as it dries. A moment later, a slightly different muscular impulse later, we may have ended up with a different painting. Something of lasting importance and magnetizing beauty can come out of the fortuitous overlapping of moving elements. So then, how much more precious and affecting is a visual object in its physicality?

Reading How to See is an exhilarating and cathartic experience. Salle mirrors all of our anxieties and questions about reading art and presents us with an intelligible framework that calls to the line our receptivity to being challenged, moved and transformed. With its earnest consideration of dozens of artists, the book itself is an offering of passion and generosity, and a pulsing invitation to the reader to find the same in the act of seeing.

Simone Grace Seol is a writer, translator and hypnotist based in Korea and California. She has previously written for broadcast media and public health and earned degrees from Wellesley College and Columbia University. You can find her writing about culture and metaphysics at