A good sit at the art museum is about much more than giving your feet a break from the hard floors and walking. A well-placed sofa or bench can change your relationship to what you are seeing, transform the social dynamic of how you relate to the crowds around you and dramatically alter the experience of the building you are in. Sitting down, in a museum, can be an almost radical act: a refusal to flow along with the distracted crowd, idly passing by art as if it was just one more stream of visual enticement in a visually saturated world. A good sit is all about committing to the depth, not the breadth, of the art itself, seeing more by deciding to see less.
A proper bench always hits the sweet spot for the work in view, neither too close nor too far for the painting or sculpture to be legible, but also situating you within the implied space of what you are looking at. One of the great benches in any art museum is at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where a nicely padded low wooden bench is placed directly in front of Fra Carnevale’s “Ideal City,” a late-15th-century work that shows an idealized town square with only a handful of people inhabiting its rigorous geometry. The emptiness of this austere urban space extends out to include the bench itself, and the idea of emptiness is enhanced by the placement of a carved wooden chest just below the painting. The cassone, or Italian chest, not only encloses emptiness in its interior space, but it also heightens the impression that the painting is an open window into the world of Carnevale’s city. Given how few people cluster around this remarkable image, the bench is also likely to be empty and peaceful, so much so that you can almost imagine the light whistle of wind around the edges of the buildings in the picture.
The Walters tends to offer visitors “trophy” benches, seating that is directly related to the finest and most important works on view (in another gallery, seating is placed in front of the museum’s magnificent Raphael tondo, a round painting of the Virgin and child with a candelabra, and at the opposite end of the room, yet another bench is directly in front of the large and bustling Vasari workshop image of Jacob’s Dream). Trophy benches assume that visitors will throng to the most prominent works on view, the art one also finds in reproductions in the gift shop. But getting a trophy bench to work isn’t always easy.
At the Phillips Collection, a prominent trophy bench is placed in front of the museum’s most famous work, Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” This is an obvious place for seating, and the bench is almost always inhabited. But the size of the gallery, and the size of the painting, makes the proximity of the bench and the image too intimate. The implied space of Renoir’s terrace, teeming with people and with multiple social vectors connecting them, overwhelms the viewer who gets too close. The painting wants more room to breathe, and its concentrated power makes one think of the bench rather like a prie-dieu, inviting visitors to kneel behind it and worship rather than enter into the work itself.
A far better bench at the Phillips — though it is surprisingly rickety — is found in the museum’s Rothko room, a difficult place to put seating because it is so small, but a success nonetheless because of the social dynamic the bench creates: If you sit there, the room seems fully occupied and other visitors tend not to enter until you leave.
The larger spaces at the National Gallery of Art give that museum more flexibility when it comes to situating sofas and benches. One of the most heavily trafficked trophy sofas is in the French galleries, directly in front of Manet’s “The Old Musician.” There are two delights to this sofa. Because it sits at the entrance of these enormously popular rooms, and because most visitors tend to move through the space almost frantically, like kids in a candy shop, sitting down in front of the Manet feels almost scandalous, akin to sitting on the floor in an airport corridor or lying down on the sidewalk. The other delight is in the painting itself. The old musician directly addresses the viewer, and Manet has created a powerful illusion with the eyes, which never seem more intently focused on you than when you sit down and stare back. It doesn’t matter where on the bench you sit, either; his eyes follow you, and his age, poverty and self-possession make his gaze particularly unnerving.
The National Gallery generally offers two types of seating: luxury and penitential. Padded garden chairs in the sunlit courtyards and taupe-colored sofas in the galleries belong to the former. Carved stone benches with a disastrously placed back rail (which cuts into your back if you try to relax) and occasional wooden benches with no padding in the galleries belong to the latter. Penitential sitting can, however, have its own virtues. A wooden bench in the Italian Gothic galleries makes one alert to the drama in Agnolo Gaddi’s “Madonna Enthroned,” in which at least two of the saints seem to give the Virgin a skeptical cross glance. The hard bench feels appropriately ecclesiastical, and more comfortable seating would relax your posture and thus your relationship to the rather stern image before you.
Seating can also be part of the art. Sometimes this is frustrating, as in the sculpture galleries at the National Gallery, where a lovely long, carved bench has a cord on it to ensure no one sits there. At the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, a bench covered in computer circuitry boards is open for sitting, and smartly placed, at an oblique angle to DeVon Smith’s “World’s First Family of Robots,” a fanciful display of robots made from recycled metal pieces, found objects, and moving parts from oscillating fans and hair dryers.
The bench itself is shiny and sleek and references the information economy that effectively killed off the manufacturing economy symbolized by the humanoid robot figures — which once promised us relief from toil, but now offer only displacement, unemployment, poverty and spiraling social inequity.
Some of the greatest benches, however, offer a more accidental or happenstantial relationship to art. Often this is simply a view of the museum’s physical space that is new or surprising, or the drama of a peripheral relationship to the art. Swivel chairs on the third level of the Hirshhorn Museum allow you to move in an arc that feels related to the circular galleries, as if the building’s peculiar shape becomes entirely present only if you are moving in the tight circle of the chair’s motion. Rotate slowly and Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Yellow Bed, Two Parts) may come into view, a gritty cast of the underside of a bed made with dental plaster. It captures the negative space beneath a familiar object, a mattress, made for repose; but it is entirely discomfiting, a sly joke about the possibility of peace and rest, all haunted by our human tendency to fill emptiness with dark thoughts and anxiety.
Sometimes, the best bench in the house isn’t in the house. My favorite spot to sit among the many museums on the Mall is a quiet spot in the small garden between the Hirshhorn Museum and the Arts and Industries Building. Even when the Mall is thronged, this location can be delightfully empty. It’s a perfect place to decompress after a visit to the Hirshhorn, or the nearby African Art and Freer and Sackler galleries.
If that bench appeals, then check out the last one, in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. This museum never feels quite finished or complete, as if it needs a firmer hand to make sense of its disparate and fascinating collection. But it is lightly used, and a lovely escape from the heat and the crowds of the Mall. On the lowest level of the museum is a pool of water and with light flowing in from the skylights several floors above, the space feels a bit like a grotto. Find the bench next to the magnificent oversized jar made by an anonymous Nyoro artist from Uganda, sometime in the middle of the last century. It is covered with a glossy, jet-black graphite sheen.
Famous, name-brand artists have struggled to capture the formal purity and emotional opacity embodied in this jar, created by someone whose legacy is neither fame nor likely riches, only a superb object sitting quietly many feet below the grassy plane on which this country’s imperial ambition is symbolized. Unexpectedly, unpredictably and perhaps in a way that can’t be replicated, it is for a moment the perfect thing, a true “foster-child of Silence and slow Time.”