What an unmade bed can tell us

What is it about the subject of an unmade bed that attracts a viewer’s attention? Tracy Emin, Valeska Soares, and Imogen Cunningham are three artists that have taken on this topic in their art and explored it in different ways. Taking on the subject of the unmade bed can allow the reader to be a voyeur of a space that strangers do not share. It is the equivalent of going over to a dinner party at a new friend’s house and peeking in her medicine cabinet. Even my closest friends haven’t been to my home when my bed is unmade. Having a chance to see how someone inhabits their bed can reveal something about a person and where they may be in their life.

Curiosity and storytelling are part of it, but beds also bring forward a feeling of crashing waves. The same curved lines that one would find in a painting of a wave crashing on the shore is present in a rumpled sheet. Being in a bed next to a lover can bring forward feelings that crash like waves and leave impressions on the pillows, bed sheets, and mattress. It can also feel peaceful like the person laying on the mattress is floating out at sea. Beds are a place of refuge, to escape the storms of emotions that life can bring forward, to curl up under waves of sheets until a person can feel safe to emerge again. I know when I am not feeling well, emotionally or physically, there is no place I would rather be than in my bed with sheets and duvets wrapped around me.


The Wave, 1869, Gustave Courbet. Städel Museum.


Imogen Cunningham likely started the trend of photographer’s capturing an unmade bed with her image The Unmade Bed. When we look at a photograph, we are often looking for the story. Whose bed is this? Does she sleep alone? Why are their hairpins on the sheet? Are they resting there as their owner gets ready for the day or have they been taken out after a long workday? Is their owner coming to or going from the bed? While looking at the image, I also wonder about the bed itself. Is it comfortable? The curvey lines of the sheets, which are accentuated by the shadows make the bed appear inviting. As I look at it, I want to climb in and wrap the bedsheet around me and curl under the blankets which are cozy and inviting. Of course, I can’t jump in because the hairpins are blocking my entrance. They interrupt the welcoming nature of the bed. There is also the feeling that I should look away. That I can view a scene that I should not know because I have never met the photographer. Only people who spend the night together are supposed to see an unmade bed.

The Unmade Bed, 1958, Imogen Cunningham. MoMA.

With Valeska Soares’ sculptures, Duet I (From After) and Mattress II, she approaches the unmade bed subject in parts. The pillows and mattress rest in different spots, and they rest on the gallery floor. Upon first entering the gallery the viewer needs to be mindful not to step on them accidentally. It is their placement that first gives the viewer pause. Why are they on the gallery’s floor? A mattress and pillows should not be on the ground. I think I know what they are made of, maybe feathers or soft foam, but upon closer inspection, I discover I am wrong. They are white marble sculptures that are hand carved to look like a mattress and pillow. If I laid on them, they would feel cold and hard. Neither appears inviting.

Duet I (From After), 2007, Valeska Soares, MCASB.

I initially thought this sculpture was about pillows and the juxtaposition of soft and hard. Then I noticed that the sculpture is memorializing the heads that rested upon it. The subject is a couple that we are not seeing. Who are they? They have been together for a long time because of the deep impressions left on the pillows. A one-night stand doesn’t leave those grooves. The couple who own these pillows sleep next to each other, every night, long enough that they have left the impressions of their heads. The result is the viewer reflects on their experience intimacy and the impact that type of experience can have on one’s life. For me, I couldn’t help but mourn someone who no longer rests next to me.

The mattress, at first, feels less personal. It is a twin size mattress, also made of white marble, and looks cheap and barely used. The indentations of its owner are missing. This mattress could belong to anyone. Maybe it rests in a spare room, or it could be for someone who lives alone, or rents a room. When I look at the mattress, I remember that for a majority of my life I slept on a cheap, twin size mattress. It wasn’t until I moved in with a boyfriend that I shared my first queen size mattress. Before that, it was a series of twin size mattresses, and for about a five-year span my mattress also rested on the floor. My mattress also didn’t look lived in because their owner didn’t spend enough time with it. I also wonder why we call this bed a twin when it is on its own, unlike the pillows, who have each other.

An unmade bed can be a window into someone’s private world. Have you ever peeked into someone’s room to check it out? It is liking peaking into a host’s medicine cabinet. We are looking for clues to understand better who a person is behind the veneer. Maybe you want to discover more about her. Is the bed made? How is it made? What is next to her bed? What do the answers tell us about our host? Can the way we keep our bed expose our inner life? Tracey Emin’s work is personal and public. Before we had social media where so many put their lives out there online, she was breaking the privacy wall. The artist, who she is, the story she is telling about herself is the art as the work is the art. Her artworks are reflections of where she is in her life and in the piece My Bed it is a time capsule of a time in her life. When I first saw My Bed, I wasn’t sure how to approach it. It rests in the gallery, like any other piece of sculpture, surrounded by a couple of paintings, but it was very different. I immediately wanted to look away because I felt like I was intruding on the artist’s privacy. We don’t often talk about the stories the bed is telling in public.


My Bed_2
My Bed, 1998, Tracey Emin. Tate.


When I first saw My Bed, I felt fear and relief. I worried about the woman who had this bed because there were many trophies to self-harm that were part of it. The feeling of comfort came from a sense I had that the woman who owned this bed also got out of this bed. It is a bed that someone spent many days in and it wasn’t an easy bedrest judging by what it left behind. It is a visual reflection of how one feels when she emerges from a state of depression. That feeling, when you can look down at something like this bed, and then turn and walk away. That’s a feeling of joy because the emotions that created this bed and pulled its keeper in have passed. Its owner had escaped the undercurrent of self-destruction.


My Bed_side
Side view of My Bed, 1998, Tracey Emin. Tate.



Touch, Don’t Touch, Inhale, Imagine

Valeska Soares’ work transforms any space and calls to a viewer with a sensual siren song. Many of her artworks call out to an observer to be touched and experienced with more than the recommended sense, viewing from a safe distance, that museums prefer. If you are fortunate enough to see her art before it is purchased by an art collector you will have a different experience than those of us who have only viewed her exhibits in museums. For example, Fainting Couch, a piece currently on display as part of her show Any Moment Now. If you come across it at one of the museums that are hosting the retrospective, you would be forgiven if you walk by it.

Valeska Soares. Fainting Couch. 2001. Stainless Steel, Stargazer Lillies, and Textile. Phoenix Art Museum

A gallery attendant was circling Fainting Couch at the museum where I came into contact with it. It was her job to ensure that no one came within two feet of the piece. The reason it caught my eye is the museum’s label. When I read through the material list, the second material, stargazer lilies, did not fit in with what I was viewing. When I returned home, I did some research on the piece and came across an interview with Soares where she described how the work was filled with lilies. Her intent was the viewer would lay on the stainless steel couch and take in the smell of the flowers through the grid of small holes that are present on the surface. Unfortunately, the owners of the piece have requested that visitors to the Any Moment Now exhibit resist the urge to lay down on Fainting Couch. Their fear is the artwork could be scratched.

When I went back to see the piece a second time I asked the gallery attendant if the museum fills the Fainting Couch with lilies. He shared that they restocked it each morning and recommended a spot where I could stand and experience the smell. I could sort of smell the flowers, but at the same time, I wondered if this is what Soares would want the viewer to be doing with this piece. My memory of her description of what her work could be was much more exciting then what I was viewing. Is something lost when work that was created to be touched is deemed off-limits? It is protected from being scratched so future admirers can walk by and look at it and imagine what it would be like to experience it.

Am I the artwork or am I standing on it?

Glarus Steel Slant
Carl Andre. Glarus Steel Slant. 2006. Steel tiles. Arizona State University Art Museum.

In 1967, Carl Andre began creating metal floor art. In 2008, I stumbled upon my first encounter with his art. Before, I had not been that interested in contemporary sculpture. I had little exposure to it. Looking at an image of sculpture does little to capture the experience of viewing a piece in person.

When I went to the museum that day, I did not arrive with an agenda to see a minimalist sculpture exhibit. I stopped in because it was hot out and thought it would be fun to wander through the galleries. I was upstairs when I walked into a room that was hosting a Carl Andre/Tim Hawkinson exhibit. Neither name was familiar to me. The room was large and had four pieces in it. The first thing I noticed was a lot of space. The room felt empty. Hawkinson had a totem sculpture and two ready-mades under glass. Andre’s sculpture was on the floor. I was immediately curious.

I went to the wall to read the artwork’s label. I hoped for an explanation for why the steel tiles were on the floor. The label gave little away. Artist’s name, date, materials, and then a curious line, “Viewers may walk on the sculpture.” I walked around it at first because I wasn’t sure if I could trust the label. Since it was a weekday and school was out, the museum was empty. I wanted someone else to go first, but no one was around. As a visitor to museums, I have heard the line, “Don’t touch the art!” many times. Now, this piece was asking me to walk on it?! To me, bottoms of shoes seem like a much higher offense than hands. Why was this work inviting the interaction? I looked around the room again. No guard on duty, so there was no one to stop me, and the sign said I could, so I decided to try it out.

At first, my walk was cautious on the tiles, treating the work like a sidewalk that was wet from the rain. Next, I ran up and down it. I looked around. I had that feeling that I was doing something wrong, but if I moved quickly, I could avoid getting caught.

Then I stood in the middle of it and imagined I was in a river. The color of the tile was a dark blue, and when I touched the steel, it felt cool. It reminded me of the way the river looks at night. Ripples of midnight and navy blue flowing downstream. I closed my eyes and walked down it and moved my hands and limbs like I was making my way through the water. This experience was the first time I had ever played with a piece of art in a museum.

When I had first looked at the work, it reminded me of the tiles I had seen in a friend’s garden. I made that move that people do when they encounter minimalist art they don’t understand. I dismissed it. Then the work’s interaction invitation gave me a chance to look deeply at the artwork, and I became engaged by it. By having that experience, it changed the way I now encounter sculpture. It awakened my imagination. I have stopped viewing sculpture as something stagnant and cold. When I look at sculpture now, I can see it move, and I notice the way I want to move with it.

Another person entered the room, and I pretended to look at the totem and then moved on to another gallery. When I was near the museum’s exit, the front desk attendant stopped me and whispered, “I saw you in the Andre exhibit.” I immediately blushed. Of course, I hadn’t had the room to myself. There had to be camera posted to watch the art. I felt the guilt of a child caught with a piece of candy she had hidden in her pocket while at the grocery store. A stolen moment of joy revealed and then that sinking sense of judgment. He smiled at me, but I hurried off. My skin was tingling with that uncomfortable feeling of exposure. The only place we can be alone in a museum is in our own thoughts.

The observation that I know very little about art (and the exercise you should try)

I felt I was knowledgeable about art when I decided to enroll in the docent training program. I went into it with the intent of sharing my love (and opinions) with others. In my mind, I saw myself talking about my favorite pieces to a captive audience.
When I first discovered art, I loved it all. I found the experience of being in a museum exciting. Every gallery held within it discoveries. The more time I spent reading about art and attending art lectures I felt my view of art narrowing. Where once I wandered through a museum, I now entered on a mission, looking for specific names. You would see me passing by hundreds of years of art because it wasn’t to my liking. My head had become full of certainties and notions. Seeing works of art felt like checking off a list. If the artist wasn’t on my preconceived record, I wasn’t stopping.
One of our first tasks as trainees in the docent program is to complete the observation exercise. The goal is simple. The trainee has to spend an hour looking at a painting. The catch is that the pieces are not picked by the trainee but assigned but the trainer. That thought terrified me. I had ideas about which pieces were worthy of an hour. I felt there was a lot of art that I did not want to spend three seconds looking at and it annoyed me that I could not pick my own.
My idea, at the time, of a piece to spend an hour with:

Robert Rauschenberg. White Painting [three panel]. 1951. Oil on canvas. SFMOMA.
Robert Rauschenberg. White Painting [three panel]. 1951. Oil on canvas. SFMOMA.

Who they paired me with:

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Jean-Baptiste Le Prince. The Flower Girl. 1758-1781. Oil on canvas. Phoenix Art Museum

I felt disappointed. Of all the works in the museum, a painting from the Rococo period was my least favorite. It was decorative, fake, and full of shades of pastels. I was not excited about my hour, but I decided to give it a try since I couldn’t figure out a way around it.
I picked up a stool, put it down in front of the painting, and set my timer. The first thing I noticed was everything that was wrong with The Flower Girl. The pastoral scene was fake and reminded me of Marie Antionette. The proportions of the arms of the subject were too long and the subject’s breasts were misshapen. I glanced at the clock. Three minutes had passed by so far. It was going to be a long hour.
I read through the exercise guide again to pass the time but felt more annoyed. I already felt like I knew the answers without looking at the work. I stood up and paced in front of the piece. I inspected the edges of the frame and tried looking at it from different angles.
Then I sat down and looked at her. I stared at her skirt and began to think about the painting and the artist’s craft. I noticed the use of light and shade. The young girl’s face shown angelically. The pleats in her aprons and skirt were carefully shaped to show off the color and texture of the fabric. I began breaking down the composition of the piece. Yes, the model for the painting was wearing a farm girl costume, but it is clear that she is not a farm girl. Her feet are clean, she wears expensive fabrics, and her hair looks done up. Who is she? Who commissioned this painting? Where did it hang? Do the flowers that fall out of her apron have a special meaning?
As I looked at her, I wondered about her age. To me, she seems like she is on the cusp of womanhood. Beautiful, glowing, and happy. I looked around the room and protective feelings begin to emerge towards the girl in the painting. I did not like the way that Colonel Lord Howden and Sir Richard Cumberland were looking at her. I wanted to take the picture off the wall and bring it home and protect it.

At the end of my hour, I find myself smiling as I look at The Flower Girl. I began filling in the pages of the exercise with my observations and questions.
I had received the lesson before in my life, and I found myself a student to it again. I don’t know as much as I think I do. My judgments interfere with my learning because they stop me from asking questions. They prevent my imagination from engaging. I need to slow down. Throw out the checklist for an imagined canon of art history and find a way to engage with a work of art. No matter when or who painted it. If I want to represent a museum’s collection I have to find a way to connect will all the pieces. I need to be comfortable in knowing that the more I learn the more I realize that I know very little.