Postulates

(A 14th century manuscript of Euclid’s Elements, showing Proposition 29, the first to rely on the parallel postulate.)

1) What is the value in making a positive or negative case for expression, content or communication in art the first place? It is not in the least obligatory or even advisable for a painter or any other kind of artist to engage in these sorts of investigations as a basis or prerequisite for work. There are legions, perhaps a preponderance, of artists who work away happily without the slightest concern for any of this, and I wish to whatever deities that may populate the firmament that I were one of them. But along with my passion for painting has long resided a deep-seated skepticism about what painting is doing and how it operates that has both bedeviled and animated my work since I began. The resulting interest as an artist has been to ascertain what possibilities exist for painting, and how to sensibly proceed. Some of the writing here deals with that, and I am grateful for any assistance offered along the way.

2) That being said, an exhaustive analysis of the dynamics and manner in which we apprehend artworks would be a insuperable endeavor in search of a contemporary Sisyphus. Over the last 50 years or so, a primary focus of many artists has been to expand art’s dominion into countless fields of form and inquiry, which has been accomplished at an ever accelerated pace. As a result, the full range and manner of artworks and activities defies any but the vaguest characterization. The scope of art has become so broad, and the territory covered by the word “art” so vast, that the utility of the term has been curtailed as the set of things that are not art or could not be considered art approaches null. There really isn’t any object or activity involving human beings that can’t be considered art, and the simple proclamation that something is art preempts any contrary claim. Which is all well, of course, as no one is keen on sacrificing a liberty once won, and eventually the word “art” may be left behind completely and other ways to talk about these phenomena will arise, if it’s not happening already. I am most interested in looking at some examples from various genres as a point of departure, with painting, and a focus on abstract painting, the eventual destination.

3) The act of looking at art and paintings is of course an experiential and dynamic process. Anything canned or self contained—takeaways, in the current parlance—is anathema to art’s dexterity, which equips it to treat ambiguity and polyphony without compromise or reduction; examine unexplored interstices and marginalia to discover new connections and associations; give voice to nuance and embody the ephemeral; and, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, create new space for the viewer. Anne Carson makes an illuminating observation in her book, The Economy of the Unlost, beautifully demonstrating how poets can overcome limitations of language to bring into focus something beyond what language can manifest literally:

At the same time, Spirit does not arise of its own accord, but is wrested from behind the veil by an effort of language between I and Thou. The effort, as Simonides and Celan stage it, is very like a poetic act reaching right to the edge of ordinary babble, to the place where metaphor waits and naming occurs...it contains visibles and invisibles side by side, strangeness by strangeness. (p. 68)


Spirit itself cannot be represented, named, but can be interpolated by poetically framing its absence. In one of her examples, “If to you the terrible were terrible,” from a Simonides fragment, “babble” is laid into the symmetrical structure of the line to illustrate the gap in the perception, between the speaker and her sleeping infant, of a violent tempest, while also pointing to the invisibility of the tremendous event to the sleeper. (p. 58) What Simonides is showing to us here, according to Carson, is that “'if to you the invisible were visible, you would see God,’ but we do not see God.” The gap between the capacity of language and our aspiration for it—demarcated but not bridged—shows language failing in a primary sense, but succeeding by making invisibles visible, framing what cannot be directly seen. “We know [words] don’t count, but we lay them against the abyss anyway, because they are what mark it for us, contrafactually.” (p. 65)

As a conception of art or as an artwork lists toward the declarative statement, so its compass contracts in direct proportion. Art is exceptional among human pursuits in its capacity to work fruitfully with what cannot be declared.