What you feel, or why a painting is like a pizza

This is the first time I have composed a book review for this blog (I have reviewed hundreds of items on Amazon, but that’s another story), however, I felt compelled to mention this particular book simply because of the effect it has had on me, which has been little short of transformational.

I have been a photographer for several years and I maintain that the simple act of using a camera viewfinder and considering the composition of a shot has literally and figuratively opened my eyes on how I see the world. As someone with little formal art background and a career in a scientific world this subjective area of my life has always played “second-fiddle,” so to speak, to the practicalities of successfully raising a family in an ever-changing world.  

Recently we visited MoMA in New York and I was amazed by much of the artwork and confused by much of the more abstract works too. I was fortunate to visit another gallery the following day (The Frick Collection) with an extremely knowledgeable friend and, importantly, I listened as he explained the nuances of many of the historical art pieces on display.

This outing spurred me on to visit my local library and the selection of the book, Why a painting is like a pizza, by Nancy Heller so that I may get to grips with contemporary art. I am so glad I did.


Heller’s introduction and simple comparison to real-world examples at the start of this relatively compact book suddenly made everything click into place. Working through the concise chapters and the color and monochrome plates I was drawn into the world of contemporary art through abstractionism and abstract art forms. I now have a much clearer understanding of these highly complex pieces of art and appreciate the why monochrome works and minimalist pieces can evoke responses in critics which appeared often insane to me, but a few short weeks ago!

To be honest, reading this single book, timed as it was with my gallery visits and friendly guidance, has been like an epiphany to me. Needless to say, I have now ordered a copy and I am sure I will keep coming back to it again and again. Heller’s work is by no means comprehensive, nor does it profess to be. It does however extend from painting to sculpture and installation art forms, and has certainly whet my appetite to explore more. I cannot wait to get back to MoMA and other art museums…

To paraphrase what I have learned from this small book:

“art is not what you see, but what you feel



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