Old Art Terms # 5: Making Visible

John Elderfield
Jan 28, 2013 2:01AM
Paul Klee famously said: “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible.” He seems to have meant that art does (or should) not reproduce what we see, but, rather, that it manufactures what we see. Under this interpretation, a painting is not a sort of mechanism that captures and displays existing visible data, but an engine to create a way of looking.

Furthermore, if a painting can be said to make visible, it may be said to do so for a beholder. Thus, although the artist makes the engine that makes visible, it is the beholder who turns it on, and keeps it running, by being a beholder. But Klee means something more than this. When he talks of the visible, he seems to be using it in its two senses of what is commonly seen and whatever can be seen. Thus, art does not reproduce the visible—what is commonly seen—but makes visible—what commonly is not seen, but which the artist has intuited in his or her own uncommon seeing, and makes visible to us.

Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares perfectly exemplifies what Klee meant; and this text derives from the speech I gave in Holland this past October when she was awarded the prestigious Sikkens Prize for 2012.
John Elderfield