weep for painting: seven non-occasions
I have never wept while standing in front of a painting, contemplating its mysterious presence. So why have I invited twenty or so artists whose practice I enormously admire (at times reverentially) to consider my brief titled ‘weep for painting’, seeking to understand how they might have responded to an experience of reverence for another artist’s work?
What does it mean anyway, to weep for painting?
Is it the painting’s surface or subject matter that creates that particular response in the viewer?
Or does the context in which it’s viewed, the specific occasion, deepen the emotion? Or perhaps it’s the viewer’s relationship with the artist that facilitates the unfolding of the painting’s inherent narrative in more poignant ways; and to add one more to the series of unanswerable questions, is it only painting that can generate this response in us or does the reverence experience extend to other kinds of art?
And I wonder whether one must be an artist oneself in order to fully encompass, perhaps even understand the complexities of the work, which then might lead, on certain occasions, to a cathartic streaming of tears down one’s cheeks or even to a simple moistening of the pupils and lashes, the gathering liquid eventually reaching that soft part of the skin under the eyes?
Or might it simply be a matter of Stendahl’s Syndrome finally manifesting beyond the Florentine precinct known to have originally harboured it, and now making its mysterious presence felt wherever in the world any art is installed?
Endless questions with no substantial answers, except for the anecdotal stories about such things each of us carries. They might in time constitute the only response we have to such questions and perhaps in the end constitute the only reliably truthful resource that might help to clarify this phenomenon.
Though I have never wept in front of a painting, or any art, I have stood still for long periods of time, facing either a wall or a space filled by that inexplicable presence known as art, perplexed by whatever it was that I was facing, as one would if after rounding a corner one unexpectedly came across the original time machine.
And instantly one was forced to desperately grip the safety handles ever so firmly, as one skipped across the face of all that we know of the world, before being finally plunged into a pre-language state, eventually finding oneself returned to exactly the same spot where the journey began, head now viciously spinning.
I can remember such occasions distinctly and I have invited twenty particular artists to consider participating in this project because their work has at one time or another generated such a response in me.
There were more, of course, but I will share seven such occasions with you.
1. The first: a cold July night in 1973 inside the bunker-like spaces of Melbourne’s Pinacotheca. A few people are wandering around like lost sheep, eventually gathering close to Dale Hickey’s tiny cup paintings hanging on the walls. White cups with blue rims, sitting squarely on a white surface. People look around searching the vast space for help but there is nothing on hand to explain these perplexing presences.
Cups. Lovingly painted, or at least most attentively. The simplest kind of affirmations of an eternal present, but simultaneously feeling distinctly like newly discovered manuscripts inscribed with forgotten languages.
I search the sides of each stretcher with my eyes for signs of an illusion, a trick, something. Nothing. Afterwards I walk through the Richmond evening seeing things I have never seen before, small things, precursors of what forty years later I will come to know as Emily Dickinson’s ‘gorgeous nothings’.
2. The second: a chilly February afternoon in 1997. I enter the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Utter darkness. Impossible to make anything out after leaving behind the harsh Texas winter light but slowly the silent presences on the walls begin to throb and pulsate like dark lungs breathing rhythmically outside the body they normally inhabit.
Suddenly I understand that they are breathing inside the body they belong to after all and that somehow we have been granted access to it, all of us wandering in privileged silence inside Mark Rothko’s vast, timeless being.
I stay until closing time, unable to leave, utterly believing, at least while I’m still inside the Chapel, that the artist is not deceased, but still containing us within his breath.
3. The third: a wild stormy afternoon at Land’s End in Cornwall in September 1999. I walk across an oak forest in order to get to a small building on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, constructed by James Turrell for the purpose of allowing visitors to view the ensuing full solar eclipse via a complex series of reflective surfaces that trace on a white stucco wall both the moon’s and sun’s celestial paths towards their eventual merging.
Some time later I and a handful of others who have also crossed the forest to reach Turrell’s celestial observatory sit silently inside it on wooden benches, following on the surface of the wall’s creased skin the imperceptible movement of the two heavenly bodies as they steer a path towards each other.
As they do this darkness begins to fall and as if on cue birds suddenly cease to sing. The waves crashing on the rocks are not muted though and their sound now reaches a crescendo.
All of us then stand as one and move outside to watch from the rise above the sea a dark shadow streaming fast towards us from far out in the turbulent Atlantic.
Suddenly it’s above us and a moment later it embraces the land beyond, flying deeper and deeper into the English countryside.
Once clear light returns muted birds begin to chatter in astonishment, and eventually they collectively sing their improvised celebratory songs.
Though there is now nothing further to see we all amble inside the observatory and sit silently on the wooden benches in exactly the same spots we occupied before the miracle, waiting in vain for an encore to play itself out on the surface of the suddenly bare stucco wall.
4. The fourth: a harsh winter’s day in New York in 1995.
Snow is piled high on Fifth Avenue and no one is around. Nothing. No one. I walk in total wonder through the icy grey mush down the very middle of Fifth Avenue until I reach 53rd Street and by the time I walk through MoMA’s front doors I can no longer feel my feet. I wander inside the Museum looking for heat and coffee and I find both.
I also find Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings and now it’s my head that’s numbed by the relentlessness of their inscrutability, by the paradoxical affirmation of wild optimism through an exuberantly fearless confrontation with the void.
The utter extremism of such an action, his absolute surrender to the rule of the void moves me deeply. There’s no going back for an artist who has made such a heroic commitment to the tenebrous.
I spend the entire afternoon walking very close to, through and around all Reinhardt’s paintings, in an attempt to get more of whatever they’re transmitting.
I eventually stagger outside into the blinding whiteness of ice and snow, now even more conscious of the deeply unforgiving nature of the blackness I’ve left behind, as I mumble in astonishment to myself all the way home to West 19th Street; ‘Of course, of course, so that’s it! That’s it! Of course it is, of course…’
But I don’t weep.
5. The fifth: I’ve long been interested in the work of Janine Antoni and when I’m told she has been invited to participate in a residency project I’m also soon to be a part of (The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art and the Shakers, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Maine) one afternoon in January 1996 I decide to make the train journey from New York to Hartford in Connecticut, where the artist is to present a performance at the Wadsworth Athenaeum homaging the work of Mierle Lademan Ukeles, a groundbreaking performance artist of the 1970’s.
I laboriously walk the six miles from the Hartford train station to the Museum through thick snow and ice, as late afternoon kitchen lights begin to glow warmly from inside the homes I trudge past.
All the while I’m considering how on a quiet weekend morning in the spring of 1973 Ukeles performed ‘Hartford Wash; Maintenance Art’, scrubbing the front steps of the Museum and mopping Avery Court on her hands and knees, in that way referencing both ‘women’s work’ and the role of the housewife artist.
In a poignantly reverential homage to Ukeles Antoni is to present a performance she has titled ‘Loving Care’. I stand silently with many others in the foyer of the Museum as she enters the vast gallery space with a large pail of black dye.
We watch through the large open doors as firstly she kneels and then begins mopping the gallery floor using her long dark hair as a brush, dipping it in intervals into the black dye.
The performance lasts almost an hour until she finally covers the last corner of the gallery floor with broad gestural strokes of her hair. It’s strenuous work and towards the end the artist labours with great difficulty. When she’s finished she stands and winces with pain as she attempts to stretch her limbs.
I notice that outside it’s begun to snow again and I move to the gallery window considering all I’ve witnessed. I watch the flakes gather into whiteness. When I turn back the artist is no longer in the room. The residue of her presence is slowly drying on the marble floor of the gallery, some marks darker than others.
Everyone has crammed together as close as possible to the pink ribbon that’s cordoning off her labour from the audience. Each of us peers silently into the emptiness.
6. The sixth: a stifling hot 1996 June afternoon in Sabbathday Lake in Maine. I’m sitting in the Meeting House where in a few days I am to present an all-night piano performance for the summer solstice.
No one has performed in this holy space since it was built in 1792 and I’m trying to understand and absorb the significance of my involvement in such an event. Sister Frances comes in with a large folder under her arm and asks me gently whether I would be interested in seeing some Shaker Gift Drawings.
I readily agree though I explain that I have never seen one and that I have no idea what they might be about or look like.
She spreads the folder on an empty wooden table upon which bunches of flowers in colorful ceramic vases are usually placed each Sunday morning for the Shaker service.
Some of the drawings are over one hundred years old, she explains, almost in a murmur. And then we’re swept up in a reverential silence as she smilingly reveals the images, one by one. There are seven, each more spellbinding than the other.
This is how they were made: the Shaker dreamer would wake in the middle of the night with the dream still intact and would immediately rush to the bedroom door and wake the appointed Gift Drawer who would immediately welcome the dreamer and then wake another Sister or Brother who would be a witness to the telling.
Sister Amelia, Sister Frances tells me, served as a Gift Drawer in Sabbathday Lake for most of her life and these are her drawings.
She, for the Gift Drawer was almost always a woman, would attentively listen to the dreamer with her eyes closed until the detailed account of the dream was completed and witnessed by a third Shaker. She would then begin drawing, again mostly with her eyes closed, until both the architecture of the dream and all of its inhabitants would appear on the paper, animating their various relationships. Only then would the dreamer and the witness return to their rooms.
I emerge from our viewing as if from a dream and I ask Sister Frances whether it might be possible for the Gift Drawings to be placed in the Meeting Room during my imminent all night vigil, as I sit at the piano blindfolded and wait for dawn. She agrees.
Occasionally through the long night some of the images I have seen in the drawings return to sustain me. At such times I feel my eyes moisten with an indescribable something, but I can’t tell what it might be. I am not able to wipe them because of the Shaker basket covering my head and I simply allow the moisture to run out of my eyes onto my face.
Just before dawn I suddenly remember that after choosing this particular basket for the blindfold I will use in my project, both for painting and for touching the piano keys, Sister Frances whispers to me that this basket is the last Sister Amelia wove before her passing the next morning.
7. The seventh: a splendid 2005 summer morning in Venice. I have just landed at the Marco Polo airport after a direct flight from Australia.
Each time I arrive in Venice I immediately take the vaporetto and head straight to the Accademia to see the masterwork that above all others perplexes and confronts me with the mystery of painting, with painting’s unique power to unsettle one’s bearings, even in this unsettled world.
So on this particular June morning I walk through the Museum’s front doors and on to the first floor where Giorgione’s ‘The Tempest’ has been given pride of place in a special alcove.
I hurriedly turn the corner only to be greeted by a barren wall. A little inscription is affixed in its centre, notifying visitors that the painting is on loan to the State Hermitage in St Petersburg for the next six months.
I unexpectedly begin to weep. Not at the sight of ‘The Tempest’, but at its absence.
I have never wept during the many past viewings of Giorgione’s masterpiece I have so far been privileged to experience, but its absence strikes a far deeper, keener place in me than its presence ever did.
Inside this experience, I somehow am able to reason, lays the kernel that sits at the heart of the mystery of painting.
‘Ah, yes, the mystery of painting…’ I mumble to myself as I exit into the full Venetian summer light.
Domenico de Clario