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Visual Art and Phenomenology

By Emily Leon

Figure 1: Georgia O’Keeffe, Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds, 1976-77, oil on canvas.

Visual art, painting in particular, and its myriad styles as French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty posits, “opens up the possibility of having an experience with the world.”[1] The visual language of abstraction, in particular, is one such possibility of understanding and reengaging with the world. Abstraction is divorced from traditional and mimetic representations of the world and thus enhances our perceptual engagement. However, abstraction is oft-studied in terms of style and form rather than through an analysis of individual experience with the world. Even the “highly manipulated abstract view or  form…cannot help but give us again what the world already gives us as we encounter it in our daily life, “unthinking” actions and movements.”[2] In other words, if a work of art is approached in an art museum, despite the viewers “perceptual and practical” understanding of the work, the object of their gaze is accepted as a work of art based on the space in which the work inhabits.[3] Thus, the world of appearances can be perceived in an infinite number of ways depending on the spaces in which objects are experienced.

The visual language of abstract painting attempts to represent external and internal realities through alternative methods, such as organic, lyrical, and geometric modes of representation, among numerous other approaches ranging from the manipulation of space, line, texture, and color. These elements seek to escape the recognizability of the world of appearances whilst reflecting on and upon it. Yet, the often and unfortunate separation between the study of the underlying principles of a work of art and its power to influence and act upon us allows for a partial understanding of the work. This is precisely why a phenomenological method to the study of art is important. It pursues meaning through alternative avenues of interpretation. This is imperative to both historical and contemporary works of art and might afford the opportunity to link what is often missing in the study of visual art, the phenomenological in tandem with aesthetics.

The phenomenologist is drawn to the close visual analysis of works of art. This is one way of identifying insights that challenge existing paradigms, such as the attention to aesthetic form and institutional definitions of art and critique rather than the works cognitive achievements. The phenomenological approach to a study of art, however, is often lacking in much art historical analysis. Certainly, there are many ways of approaching the study of art. For example, some art might be understood as temporal based on the works historical narrative and whether or not its universality can be argued given the interpreter’s inability to understand the criteria of the work outside of its historical context. However, I would argue, that certain forms and aesthetic styles of visual art [e.g. abstraction] often position works in an atemporal framework; existing without time. This allows certain works to rise above their history. Of course, aesthetical and historical analyses play large roles in the interpretation of visual art. Nonetheless, the perceptual and somatic exchange between the work, the artist, and the viewer is essential. As such, experience, embodiment, and reflection play pivotal roles in how visual art acts upon the viewer and the space it occupies. The work can then tell us something about not only the artist’s perception of the world, but our own experiences within the world.

Religious studies scholar David Morgan discusses and defines material culture in his essay “Religion and Embodiment in the Study of Material Culture” (2015).[4] In this text, he relies on a phenomenological approach. More importantly, he describes how material culture not only creates value, but “shapes the self, the physical deportment and appearance of the body, its inner feelings, and it shapes the world around it, including other bodies.”[5] Morgan asserts that the body is not just a flesh organ, but a somatic instrument and vehicle in which “cognitive functionality” is “produced by intellection, the discernments of feeling and intuition.”[6] Despite Morgan’s explicit focus on religion and embodiment, the same method applies to the work of an art historian. This brings to mind a recent experience I had with an abstract work of art in late October of this year.

A phenomenological approach to art historical analysis is important because it seeks to acknowledge human experience, emotions, and behaviors, an approach that is often left out of the study of philosophical aesthetics. To highlight, I attended the exhibition The Beyond – Georgia O’Keeffe + Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC in October. The quietude of O’Keeffe’s paintings paired with disorienting and often three-dimensional contemporary works skewed my perception, a vertiginous spiral between the silence of the American Southwest and the loud cacophony of emerging artists said to evoke and expand on O’Keeffe’s visual language. Despite the uncomfortable and dizzying experience, I was transfixed by the last two O’Keeffe paintings in the exhibition. The horizontal works were produced later in her life, and more importantly while she was going blind. Thus, these works were produced from only her peripheral sight. Additionally, her translation of the view of the horizon on the canvas captivated my field of vision and suddenly my peripheral sight went dark. I could only see waves of vibration in the air when I met her piece Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds (1976-77) (fig. 1).

Over half of this work is painted white, signifying the delicate suspension of particles in air. Just beyond the clouds, subtle bands of color form on the horizon, pale shades of green and blue. The work is ethereal. Perhaps I was enamored by the piece because it reminded me of my own time spent in the American Southwest. Maybe the space in which the work was exhibited alongside many incongruous and three-dimensional objects forced me to engage with O’Keeffe’s painting closer. Either way, my experience with this work is evidence of the power of visual art to influence perception. Where did I go in that moment? What had I seen? What’s at work in this image?

This brings to mind questions about sight, transcendence, and where we go when we think. Hannah Arendt argues in The Life of the Mind (1978) that “everything that appears is perceived in the mode of it-seems-to-me, hence open to error and illusion, appearance as such carries with it a prior indication of realness.”[7] For Arendt, realness is contingent on the viewer’s learned and perceived view of what is real, and further argues that “art…transforms sense-objects into thought-things, tears them first out of their context in order to de-realize and thus prepare them for their new and different function.”[8] Simply put, the “reality” of what one perceives in a work of art is dependent on its “worldly context.”[9] How does this apply to the experience with O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds? Religious studies scholar Jamal J. Elias might position such an experience between aesthetics and phenomenology, as the feelings induced while viewing the image within a particular space arguably consummate a “somatic” and “embodied” experience between vision and seeing.[10] Further examples might include Merleau-Ponty’s view of art and theories of perception that address the importance of engaging with the world or what Arendt describes as the importance and influence of the worldly context.

For Merleau-Ponty, perception is an expressive and creative instance that is intimately linked to artistic practice. In his essay “Eye and Mind” (1961), Merleau-Ponty examines painting in particular as an image that displays the act of how artists view the world around them.[11] Painting is an immersive and embodied experience for the artist. This holds true for the viewer as well. In thinking about Merleau-Ponty’s interest in embodiment, let’s revisit O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. During this particular moment in her life, she began to travel in an airplane for the first time. This allowed her to experience the world from an aerial view. In considering this new perspective, she began to abstract the sky, reaching an incredibly minimal view of the horizon that forces the viewer to experience what she saw. An engagement with this work perhaps allows the viewer an opportunity to see through two sets of eyes, their own and those of the artist.

The body and its lived experience, particularly within space and how that space is perceived, were important concepts for Merleau-Ponty. He expands on this quite in-depth in his book Phenomenology of Perception (1945).[12] He asserts in his chapter on space that “space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the positing of things becomes possible.”[13] Merleau-Ponty is using the term posit actively. Space is the location in which all things are connected, a place of dynamic reflection. Reflection in this context is delicate. I would argue it assumes a multiplicity of meaning. In this case, however, reflection is better framed as the phenomenon of an instance of thought, an instance of being in the world and thus perceiving both body and mind within the experience of space in relation to objects. In regard to material culture, Morgan too might describe this experience as an instance considering the object and its action upon the body within the construct of culture.[14]

O’Keeffe’s painting might also be considered in terms of a process of deformation in space, an altered form of traditional representation of the horizon above the clouds based on her instance of reflection. In contrast to Merleau-Ponty, German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto suggests in The Idea of the Holy (1928) that the impression O’Keeffe’s work of art leaves is magical, which is “independent of reflection.”[15] For Otto, the magical is a “dimmed form” of what he describes as the numinous, having a strong spiritual quality that suggests the presence of a divinity.[16] On the one hand, Otto argues the importance of non-rational thought as imperative to an understanding of individual religious experience and thus a “fundamental datum of religion.”[17] On the other hand, regarding Otto’s interest in visual art, he believes that the art object is autonomous, separated from the individual’s engagement with the work, and thus has the ability make an impression through the supernatural vehicle of the divine. Although Otto’s understanding of the function of visual art certainly deals with the phenomenal, his argument omits the role of the active participation of the viewer. Works of art are in a reciprocal relationship between the object and its viewer. Art cannot function without this duality.

This brings us back to the discussion of visuality, perception, and how the viewer understands, interprets, and engages with works of art. O’Keeffe’s depiction of light and the layers of soft color void of any one perspective allow the viewer an opportunity to embody the infinite. The painting invokes a feeling of weightlessness and draws to mind a passage written by Romantic writer Jean-Paul and analyzed by Gaston Bachelard in Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement (1943): “This flight, in which I am sometimes climbing and sometimes rising straight up with my arms beating like oars, is a real air and ether bath for the brain, voluptuous and restful…exalted in body and spirit.”[18] This passage, metaphorically, explains the phenomenological experience I had with O’Keeffe’s painting. It denotes my observation of the transfer of energy through matter and space whilst acknowledging the relationship between the body-mind, an association conducive to the process of perceiving a work of art.

This type of sensory and conceptual visual awareness is approached by British philosopher Richard Wollheim in his work on mind and emotions, particularly related to visual art. In Phenomenologies of Art and Vision (2013), Paul Crowther analyzes and critiques Willheim’s theory of seeing-in, a theory that involves “twofoldness.”[19] Wollheim states, “Seeing-in is a distinct kind of perception, and it is triggered by the presence within the field of vision of a differentiated surface.”[20] This might explain the physiological phenomenon that occurred in my body as I viewed O’Keeffe’s painting. However, this dual concept is largely dependent on the “seeing of recognizable figures” developed from “conventionalizing seeing-in,” and thus problematizes the intuitive and inner experience by reducing seeing to accepted and artificial standards of taste.[21] This is precisely what a phenomenological method to the study of visual art seeks to avoid.

There are art historical standards that often define the viewer’s visual field. These standards began with concepts of beauty that mark a work of art as an object to be contemplated rather than an object that does work on the body-mind. Elias reacts to this and states, “visual objects and material goods have the capacity to evoke sensory responses, or to captivate…they do not just provide evocations of times past or moral reckonings, but affective sense of space, literally territories of feeling.”[22] The body as such is a tract of land that is mapped and traversed by its engagement and embodiment of material and visual environments. Thus, art history and its deep assumptions about what counts, largely a formalist approach that lumps objects into context categories, leaves a deep hole in the midst of an incredibly complex web of cognitive and somatic human experience that belong in the discourse surrounding the analysis of visual art.

A phenomenological method to the study of art in tandem with aesthetics is paramount to a better understanding of visual art insofar as it leaves room for the study of traditional principles whilst also including the study of consciousness and the deeper meaning of the object of direct experience. Mark Wrathall restates Merleau-Ponty’s view in his essay “The Phenomenological Relevance of Art” in Art and Phenomenology (2011): “Art, and the pictorial arts in particular, is uniquely well qualified to help us understand our perceptual engagement with the world.”[23] In other words, the world and the things therein seek body-mind engagement. More importantly, in order to produce a pictorial depiction, the artist must be able to “see the world.”[24] If the abstract artist understood the importance of the body in relation to the world, why does art history so often eliminate the body-mind experience with the work?

What is it then to see and perceive? What does it mean to think? My encounter with O’Keeffe’s painting considers these questions both aesthetically and phenomenologically. The experience is shadow to theory, existential phenomenology, and fiction, a non-rational and exclusive encounter that demonstrates how “objects become locations of emotion,” locations where the body-mind become subjects to what artist Paul Klee understood as “art in the highest circle.”[25] If viewers position their bodies within the fixed point of the sphere, they begin to perceive the previously unidentified. The body as such becomes a vehicle for an instance. The viewer both sees in and beyond the educated eye. Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector states in Áqua Viva (1973): “My painting has no words: it is beyond thought. In this land of the is-itself I am pure crystalline ecstasy. It is itself. I am myself. You are yourself.”[26] What do we make of the metaphors we live by that so tediously draw from both “bodily data and experiences?”[27] What we make of these metaphors is the relationship between what is learned and what is perceived within the world we inhabit, a duality and often layered meaning that the interpretation of visual art cannot afford to live without. The life of a work of art and its whirling layers of meaning are enhanced by phenomenology.

©2018 Emily Leon

[1]Joseph D Parry and Mark Wrathall, “Introduction,” in Art and Phenomenology, ed. Joseph D. Parry (New York: Routledge, 2011), 3.



[4]David Morgan, “Religion and Embodiment in the Study of Material Culture,” in Religion: Oxford Research Encyclopedias, 2015.

[5]Ibid., 4.


[7]Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind(New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1971), 49.


[9]Ibid., 50.

[10]Jamal J. Elias, “Of Children, Objects, and Seeing,” in Alef Is for Allah: Childhood, Emotion, and Visual Culture in Islamic Socieities(California: University of California Press, 2018), 15.

[11]Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception, ed. James E. Edie (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964).

[12]Maurice Merleau-Ponty,Phenomenology of Perception(New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962).

[13]Ibid., 243.

[14]Morgan, “Religion and Embodiment in the Study of Material Culture,” 2.

[15]Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy(London: Oxford University Press, 1928), 69.


[17]Morgan, “Religion and Embodiment in the Study of Material Culture,” 4.

[18]Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement(Texas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1988), 31.

[19]Paul Crowther, “Abstract Art and Transperceptual Space: Wollheim and Beyond,” in Phenomenologies of Art and Vision: A Post-Analytic Turn(London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 29.


[21]Ibid., 30-31.

[22]Elias, “Of Children, Objects, and Seeing,” 14.

[23]Mark Wrathall, “The Phenomenological Relevance of Art,” in Art and Phenomenology(New York: Routledge, 2011), 12.

[24]Ibid., 22.

[25]Elias, “Of Children, Objects, and Seeing,” 24, 28.

[26]Clarice Lispector, Água Viva(London: Penguin Books, 1973), 22.

[27]Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 31.