Love of art is blind for sightless museum visitors

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Barbara and Barry Appel pause in front of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”, on March 19, 2013. AFP

NEW YORK — Her eyes see nothing, but when Barbara Appel runs her fingers over the face of a Picasso sculpture in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, she sighs with pleasure.

Most people go to museums to look at exhibits, but for some at MoMA, love of art is literally blind.

Each month, a small group with various levels of impaired vision accompanies an expert guide to the famed Manhattan museum.

For Appel, who is 62 and suddenly lost her sight just over a decade ago, the Art inSight program is a lifeline to a vital part of her world that she feared had vanished.

“With this, I really feel I’m connected, I’m connected to something I’ve always loved, something that gave me so much motivation,” she said, recalling the inspiration she drew from museums in her career as a jewelry designer.

On this month’s tour, a group of about 20 visited an exhibit called “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.”

Most of the works were fragile paintings or drawings, so touching was not allowed.

Visitors had to rely instead on their guide — and their imaginations — to visualize the rule-breaking, hard-to-describe works of Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and other early 20th century iconoclasts.

At each piece, the group paused not just for a careful description from the guide, but a conversation about the work’s meaning.

Much time was spent at a 1918 sculpture by Marcel Duchamp with the deliberately awkward title, “A Regarder (l’autre cote du verre) d’un oeil, de pres, pendant presque une heure,” or “To be looked at (from the other side of the glass) with one eye, close to, for almost an hour.”

“It’s a long rectangle base which is just the base, not the artwork,” the guide, Jennifer Gray, said, pointing at the box under the actual Duchamp.

As she detailed the sculpture, a cracked glass screen filled with geometric shapes, one of the visitors lifted a mini-telescope to her eye.

Barbara Appel, who uses a wheelchair, looked vaguely in the right direction as her husband Barry filled in the gaps.

“The glass is cracked,” he said.

“Really? That’s interesting,” she exclaimed.

Then Barry Appel peered through the Duchamp piece. “I’m looking into the future,” he quipped.

When it was time to move on to another Duchamp, Gray reorientated the group, saying: “The box behind, behind me, behind my voice.”

Carrie McGee, who oversees MoMA’s programs for the disabled, said the blind were first invited to tour sculptures in the 1970s.

Then a decision was made to take on the challenge of showing the unique visitors paintings and other objects that couldn’t be touched.

“We often brainstorm to make the experience as multi-sensory as possible,” she said.

For example, when blind visitors were taken to a version on loan to the MoMA of Edvard Munch’s iconic “Scream,” they were invited to re-enact the open-mouthed, hands-on-face pose at the center of the painting.

One of the guides — all outside art experts brought in by the MoMA — said working with the partially sighted had opened her own eyes.

“It helps me to see the art better, because I have to describe it in a way that is more discernible,” Deborah Goldberg said. “They’ll discover things that we overlook frequently.”

But the direct connection made by touching sculpture is unbeatable.

After the regular tour, MoMA staff agreed to take Appel to the Picasso exhibit, which includes one of the first steps in the development of Cubism, a bronze head of the artist’s lover Fernande Olivier.

Appel’s expression, eyes fixed somewhere on the ceiling, was of pure concentration and delight as her left hand navigated the unusual contours.

She touched the angular nose and cheeks.

“This is her face, here,” she said.

“Feel the sharpness of her nose,” her husband suggested.

“You touch what’s being described to you and it becomes total reality,” Appel said. “I’m still seeing. I’m still taking in the arts as I did. There’s wonderful sight in the mind of a person.”

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