tIn the 1960s, artists were emerging from the abstract expressionism of the 1950s and were looking for new directions and inspirations. Some artists found that new direction staring right back at them: mirrors.
“You have this completely abstract material, but it is also representative,” said Eileen Doyle, the Marsted Curatorial Fellow for Contemporary Art at at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. “You could create a work that is still abstract, but always of the moment, reflecting what is in front of it.”
Doyle is the curator of “Mirror, Mirror,” a fun Atheneum exhibit composed of artworks from the last 50 years using the medium of mirrors.
“‘Art is like a mirror’ is a metaphor that has been used all the way back to Plato. These artists used mirrors to guide their composition,” Doyle said. “By incorporating them into their work, they were able to play with ideas of two dimensions and three dimensions, transparency and reflection.”
The artists also were influenced by a 1963 California exhibit of work by Marcel Duchamp, the pioneering Dada artist famous for his “readymades,” or everyday items re-labeled as artworks. “These artists realized they could pick up anything and do art with it,” Doyle said. “It was a freeing moment. You don’t have to stand in front of a canvas.”
A large sculpture by Larry Bell combines transparency and reflection. A set of tall mirrors and clear panels are arranged in a pattern, where variations on the lighting in the gallery change the panels from mirrors into two-way mirrors, or vice versa. When circling the piece, viewers disappear suddenly from view and then reappear again suddenly. “He was working with the way light flows through glass, how that can shape a space,” Doyle said.
A wall-mounted work by James Seawright is 225 mirrored panels, in a 15-by-15 grid, each one positioned at a slightly different angle. Depending on where visitors stand, they can see 225 versions of themselves, or the artworks in the Avery Court outside the door, or something standing off to the side, or just a blank white wall.
Lucas Samaras created a boxy mirrored “infinity room,” where a person can see unlimited reflections of him or herself by poking their head into the door. Sam Durant used Robert Smithson’s ideas about juxtaposing mirrors with natural elements to create a stylized tree trunk set on top of a mirror. Durant was making a statement about the Civil Rights movement. The position of the tree renders it ineffective for lynching and the mirror forces gallery viewers to see themselves together as a community.
Virgil Marti’s “Thanatopsis” — named after a meditation on death by poet William Cullen Bryant — borrows the shape of a Chippendale mirror and the colors of a Frederic Church sunset to create his own statement about mortality.
Doyle said since it opened, she has noticed Instagram users have embraced the exhibit’s ability to put the viewer at the center of the installation. “It’s taken off. A painting is just on a wall. You can interact with these,” she said.
MIRROR MIRROR is at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, until April 29. thewadsworth.org.