Watching The Watches: Taking A Look At Timepieces In Contemporary Art
Architecture & Design

Watching The Watches: Taking A Look At Timepieces In Contemporary Art

Clocks and watches are practical devices, but they can also be considered objets d’art. As a result, they are often the subject of art.

By Rhonda Riche

The earliest known painting to include a mechanical watch is a portrait of Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Florence, painted by Renaissance master Maso da San Friano. In this artwork, which dates from around 1560, the Duke is holding a golden timepiece. During the Renaissance, nobility often commissioned paintings of themselves not only as a testament to their social standing but also as an inventory of their possessions. A pocket watch like this was a symbol of prestige and power.

In the 20th century, the medium became the message, with modern artists using paintings to express their thoughts on the state of the world at large. In non-abstract art, time and timepieces represent the personal, the political, or both. Of course, we can’t include every example of horological visual art, but this overview aims to illustrate how modern artists have reshaped the way we look at time.

Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory

The Persistence of Memory is a 1931 painting by artist Salvador Dalí. First shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has had the painting in its collection since 1934. Millions have visited this artwork, making it the most recognizable example of Surrealism.

Surrealism’s experimental approach to art used everyday objects in unrealistic manners to challenge perception. Dalí described his work as “hand-painted dream photographs.”

What do these melting pocket watches represent? In surrealism, everything exists in a sort of dream state. So, by depicting a solid and highly complex mechanical object as a gelatinous form, Dalí is making a statement about how irrelevant industrial society’s obsession with time is.

Richard Prince’s Untitled (Three Men's Hands with Watches)

In the 1980s, Postmodernism rebelled against Abstract Expressionism by “appropriating” cultural themes and tropes. Influenced by Dada, Surrealism, Pop, and Conceptual art, people like David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine challenged existing art theory (and copyright laws) by creating work that questioned the concept of high and low art and notions of authorship.

In this movement, Richard Prince is considered a master of piracy, best known for his ‘re-photography’ technique. Taking pictures of found photographs and subsequently recontextualizing them, he asks what it means to be the author of a work.

In this 1980 triptych (a compositional form prevalent in Christian art and iconography), Prince presents a series of rephotographed luxury watch ads recontextualized as a sort of altar. At the same time, he is commenting on the inner mechanics of creating an appetite for high-end timepieces in our cultural consciousness.

What does Prince think about watches? Of these Ektachromes, Prince told Bomb Magazine in 1988, “The way they were presented in say, the magazines, looking like living things. That’s what I liked. They look like they had egos.”

Félix González-Torres Untitled (Perfect Lovers)

This powerful piece, produced between 1987-1990 and 1991, consists of a pair of Seth Thomas clocks set to the same time and eventually fall out of sync.

Félix González-Torres was a Cuban-born American process artist who died at a tragically young age due to complications from AIDS. Openly gay, his minimalist assemblages and sculptures were influenced profoundly by the AIDS crisis as well as gun violence in America.

While Untitled (Perfect Lovers) deals with the subject of death, it could also be read as a tribute to love. After his partner, Ross Laycock, died in 1991, González-Torres revisited this work to help cope with the loss. More than a meditation on mortality, the clocks became a reflection on their relationship and the time they spent together. Recently critics have suggested that the work representing the continuation of life with the possibility of regeneration – life goes on as gallerists must conserve the piece (and replace the batteries).

Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of a Venetian Ambassador, Aged 59, II

Visually, American realist painter Kehinde Wiley harkens back to the traditions of portraitists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, and Ingres. While these old masters celebrated the glory and splendor of the ruling classes, Wiley’s portraits seek to empower urban Black individuals by depicting subjects as aristocratic.

By appropriating the language and symbols of power used in traditional European visual art, his work also critiques this language and these power symbols as a means of providing alternatives to stereotypical depictions of Black Americans.

Wiley painted President Barack Obama’s official portrait, but most of his work focuses on ordinary people of color in their everyday clothes. Like the 16th century Cosimo I de Medici painting, the sitter of the Portrait of a Venetian Ambassador, Aged 59, II (2006) meets the gaze of the viewer while proudly showing off an ornate timepiece. At the same time, an ornate floral background serves as a comment on normative masculinity tropes.

David Shrigley’s Untitled (What Time Is It?)

British artist David Shrigley is best known for his satirical drawings accompanied by hand-rendered texts. These images use an unfiltered, child-like quality to address complex themes, such as man’s relationship with society and technology, the passage of time, and the responsibilities of life. Shrigley’s work is humorous, but art collectors take his work very seriously.

In this black and white drawing from 2004, Shrigley depicts a hands-free clock face with the text: “Q. What Time Is It? A. I Don’t Know.” Generally speaking, Shrigley is reluctant to talk about the meaning of his art. That said, by using the written word, the message should be clear. But in a recent interview with the Art Newspaper, he acknowledged that pieces like this are always open to re-interpretation over time.

“People project their own feelings onto the work,” said Shrigley, adding that before the coronavirus pandemic everything projected was about Brexit. “Now everything is about coronavirus, whether you like it or not.”

Katherine Bernhardt’s Swatch

In terms of artwork that elicits sheer joy, Brooklyn-based painter Katherine Bernhardt’s Swatch series can’t be beat. Her oeuvre comprises consumer goods, tropical animals, and supermodels painted in bright flat fields of color.

Bernhardt is also a collector herself and began amassing Swatch watches as a teenager in suburban St. Louis. Over the last decade, she has revisited their colorful designs and pop sensibilities. In 2017 she presented her collection alongside a selection of her Swatch-influenced paintings.

Her work is a clash of Postmodernism (with its appropriation of pop-cultural icons) and Abstract Expressionism (with its bold application of paint). Overall, Bernhardt seems to have an abiding respect for both movements – and a deep love for its subject matter.

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