An Art Historian for the People

Lauren Kaplan makes connections between fine art and present-day concerns

| 15 Nov 2022 | 12:23

Lauren Kaplan is an art historian for the people. As a professor of art history at John Jay College and Hunter College, and as the founder of Lauren Kaplan Art Tours, Kaplan educates, inspires and challenges her students with her college courses, in-person tours and virtual classes on the history of art and current exhibitions in New York City. You do not need to be an expert on art to take one of her courses; Lauren’s informal teaching style and the connections she makes between fine art and present-day concerns makes it approachable and fun for anybody who’s curious about the art world. We sat down with her to discuss the virtual art classes she’s teaching this fall, motherhood, and her favorite place at the Met.

So much of our lives today are virtual. We spend a lot of time looking at content on our computers and phones. What, for you, is the value of seeing an artwork in person, at a museum, or a gallery? What do you get out of that experience that you couldn’t get at home?

My practice as an art historian has always been very object-based. I’ve always put a lot of stock in being in front of an artwork, seeing the brush strokes, seeing the different parts that the artist touched, being able to see these tiny details that you can’t get through a screen. I think that that’s still really important. I think that there are a lot of aspects of a work of art that do not come through, or don’t come across, in a virtual setting.

I also think one of the biggest things that is lost is the scale. When I’m showing works of art to people on Zoom, which I’ve been doing now for two and a half years ... whenever possible, I try to show an image of a person next to the work of art if the scale is an important element of it.

And then I think there’s something to be said for the setting. Being in an art environment when you’re looking at art, as opposed to being in your domestic environment where you’re probably not going to have the same type of removed experience or, for lack of a better word, a spiritual experience of looking, you might have a really strong emotional or intellectual response. I think that is harder to do when you’re just in your living room or on your couch.

Tell us about the virtual class you’re teaching about the Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney. What about this particular exhibit excites you and why do you think Edward Hopper’s work is important to know about?

Hopper [in his work] is thinking a lot about urban life; he’s working in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, [thinking about] how the city’s changing. And I think that’s really relevant to now, because the city’s in another moment of transition, and I really think about how it’s going to be chronicled by the artists who are working today. I always gravitate towards artists who are chroniclers of their moment in time. I guess all artists are to an extent, but I think Hopper was really trying to capture the zeitgeist and paint these images that showed people’s loneliness and alienation and how they felt during the Great Depression.

His paintings have actually been shown a lot [online], not now, but in the early moments of the pandemic when we were all in lockdown, because he’s done so many images of figures alone in a room. And in particular, a woman staring out a window, or a man by himself in his office and you don’t see any other people. And that isolation I think is something that really speaks to the last few years and the way people have felt really separated from each other.

In the past, you’ve said that “a lot of my work is helping people be okay with not knowing what they’re looking at” and helping people try to appreciate art that they might dislike. Tell me more about that and how you help your students through this process.

I’m not interested in teaching people who already know already know everything about art and are super steeped in the art world and talk the talk and know all the jargon. That’s fine, but there are other people who are going to be better at that job. I would rather teach people who are coming in with maybe a baseline of knowledge and interest and curiosity, but who feel, like “I don’t get it,” “this is intimidating,” and to help them feel comfortable looking at the stuff they previously would’ve felt that they didn’t get. My goal is to never say, “ I want you to like this”; It’s always to say, “I want you to know where the artist is coming from,” or to understand the conditions under which it was made.

It’s about, to a large extent, making people previously who weren’t that comfortable feel comfortable.

You’re a mother of two children now and you bring your kids sometimes to museums. Has becoming a parent changed your relationship to your work and art in general?

One thousand percent, in a couple of big ways. It’s a great question ...In terms of my interest in art and types of art I want to look at, it really has changed. I think it’s the experience of 1), being pregnant, and then 2) now, being a mother and then now having kids.

I think I’m actually very on trend in this way, which I’m never trendy, but among a lot of artists in the last, I would say, five years, there is a sort of growing interest in depicting pregnancy and birth. And there’s an artist named Carmen Winant who had an exhibition at MOMA in 2018 when I was pregnant with my son, who’s now three-and-a-half, and she did three thousand images of people giving birth. And she had taken them out of medical journals and “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” books about women’s health, et cetera, and put them up on the gallery wall.

It was interesting because I was giving tours of this work while I was obviously pregnant and was sort of noticing how people responded to the images and to me taking them through it. Women, especially women who had had children, were super interested in it and a lot of the men were very kind of squeamish, and some of the images were pretty rough. And then it was made more awkward by the fact that obviously they were talking to someone who was going to go through that experience. It changed my interactions with some people.

But that’s probably a work of art that ten or fifteen years ago, I would have seen it and viewed it from a very removed place. And now, when I teach contemporary art, I literally teach an entire class on images of women’s bodies and many of them are pregnant bodies. There’s this whole subject matter that I would’ve felt removed from before and now I look at it and it’s super personal.

Do you have a favorite work of art that really speaks to you?

This is an unorthodox answer, but for a really long time, my favorite object [at the Met] was Perneb’s Tomb. It’s from 2,400 B.C., so it’s a 4,400 year old tomb that is now closed, because of COVID ... But you could walk in the narrow entry way into this tomb. And that’s so cool. And you really feel removed from New York and from the present. And there are paintings, still the original pigments on the walls, and people bringing offerings to Perneb, who was the royal dresser for the Pharaoh. I like things that, in the context of a place like the Met, which has so many nooks and crannies and so many spaces, I just like the spaces in the museum that remove you from the present moment. That are kind of an escape.

Visit to learn more about Lauren Kaplan or register for one of her classes.

“I always gravitate towards artists who are chroniclers of their moment in time.” Lauren Kaplan