“Art is not ‘about.’ Art is,” the painter and critic Walter Darby Bannard often said. His shorthand dismissal of work that demands explication rather than yielding directly to sensory experience summed up an attitude shared by his friends and colleagues. Speaking of how one judges a painting, Bannard’s friend Larry Poons asserted that “It’s only your senses that can ever determine—it’s senses before words.” Works of art that require discussion of what they are “about” are most often essentially illustrations of carefully considered ideas and meanings more easily expressed verbally than visually. As Poons described this type of work:

There are things that look like paintings, but they’re not. They can be a kind of propaganda—posters,...


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