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In Buddhist tradition “the stopping mind” refers to the tendency to fixate on things, ideas or experiences, and thus impede acceptance of the transitoriness of everything, ourselves included.

But that notion grew out of societies that never envisioned a high-tech, commerce-driven culture such as ours that prizes incessant motion and change both for their own sake and as fuel for the profit system.

Addicted to speed, we need help stopping: not in fear or paralysis, but in a mode that gives us pause to sort out what we see and feel. We need relief from our own glib knowingness, which lets us glide through the element of surprise in daily life.

Hence our need for the arts, especially the arts of our own time, which respond to our condition implicitly and sometimes explicitly.
I started out as a critic in a world slower than this one – no Internet, no credit cards, no cash machines – yet already jet-propelled. At the very outset, I encountered the then-new tendency – minimal sculpture – that tried to make the arresting quality of art the entirety of its content.

Confronted with a piece such as Carl Andre’s “Voltaglyph 20” (1997) – which closely resembles things he made 30 years earlier – I felt that it left me nowhere to go – in interpretation, in emotional response, in conversation. Yet as sculpture, it somehow convinced me.

(Photo courtesy of Haines Gallery)

Writing my way out of that apparent cul-de-sac left me with heightened alertness to the interruptions built into artworks: passages that slow the movement of attention through the work’s structure or toward a clear idea of its meaning.

Other factors also played a part. Art institutions, including the market, quickly absorbed the shock delivered by the utter inertia of work by Andre and other New York artists of his generation. Yet even to those long familiar with Andre’s work, a stony absurdity close to the heart of it can still obtrude itself unexpectedly and induce a blush of self-consciousness about the whole business of dwelling on art objects.

Few visual artists working in more complex idioms can cause the kind of comprehensive full stop that Andre contrived. But complexity in art – in good work, anyway – usually entails some choreographing of the work’s reception.

Consider a photograph by Lee Friedlander, whose retrospective comes to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in February. A black-and-white shot of an apple tree under snow, it might have risen no higher than Christmas-card banality. But Friedlander’s choice of viewpoint and lens and his tuning of the print produced an image that not only precludes our entering into it sentimentally but also continually drives the eye back to the picture surface graphically.

The medium’s inherent realism draws the eye into the image space, but it rebounds again and again to the powerful, effectively abstract network of forms at the picture plane. A momentary stoppage occurs – like the still point at the apex of a parabola – with each volley of attention. It is as if Friedlander forces us to reassemble the image repeatedly in order to see it.

With every such interruption of what we may prefer to imagine as a seamless flow of perception, we contact an inner silence that ordinarily we may not hear at all: a momentary clearing in the pervasive cultural fog of received opinion and inferred expectation.

Genuine shocks – an accident, sudden bad news – often produce a similar hiatus, making us feel cruelly isolated in our subjectivity. By providing this sort of radical interruption free of practical consequences, artworks allow us to grow more comfortable with it, even to appreciate it as a truth of experience.

The kind of interruption or stoppage I describe need not last long. It can do its work of aerating awareness in an instant or a cascade of instants. For this reason, the periodic laments we hear over the short spans of time people spend in front of individual artworks miss the point. The quality, not the duration of engagement, matters.

To a knowing hand, any medium may offer the means to contrive the rhythms of comprehension and arrest that the culture at large offers only in degraded form, if it’s offered at all.

Deborah Butterfield’s sculpture “Untitled (Rust)” (2004) shows how it can occur in assemblage. Butterfield constructs sculptures of horses – each one portraying a specific animal, she claims – from scrap metal or wood. A viewer of her work re-enacts in some measure the process of gaining, losing and regaining sight of the possibilities of forming an image in the round from components that in themselves suggest nothing horse-like whatsoever.

Often a viewer circling a Butterfield sculpture literally will stop and savor a vantage point from which the governing image seems to coalesce or to dissolve into abstraction or mere raw material.

Critical writing about art seldom describes well, and almost never exemplifies, the kind of respiration of reception I have tried to evoke. To find that in language, we have to turn to poetry.

Kenneth Baker
San Francisco Chronicle