Tim Doud on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

800px-Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec_-_At_the_Moulin_Rouge_-_Google_Art_ProjectHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-1895, Oil on canvas, 48 x 55 inches

I came to my artistic interests in a very particular fashion. I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts a port town near Cape Cod. My parents married young – both had working class backgrounds and neither had an expansive knowledge of fine art. Early in their relationship, they had fuzzily romantic portraits painted of one another. I always loved those paintings; even though they were officially bad art, they were my first reference to any kind of painting, as well as, to the significance art can have in a life. My dad, a career navy machinist, bought some small replicas of Michelangelo sculptures during one of his deployments – made with a material that dissolves if it gets wet. This was the art I grew up with. When I was in middle school, we relocated to rural, central Missouri.  It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school, when the art students took a trip to the Nelson Adkins Museum in Kansas City, that I saw paintings in a museum.

The first paintings I ever interacted with regularly were those bought and traded in the board game “Masterpiece”. “Masterpiece”: I had covetous relationships with many of the paintings in the game but two stand out. Rembrandt’s portrait Old man with a Gold Chain with the subject’s wonderful, lumpy, black cloaked, illogical body was one and, my favorite, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge.

Masterpiece (Game)

My initial interests in At the Moulin Rouge were the large figure with an under-lit greenish face in the lower right hand corner of the painting and the dynamic composition. The scene was decadent and exotic to me as a teenager living in rural Missouri. The large figure is May Milton, a well-known dancer at the time and one of the subjects of the painting along with other notable nightclub denizens, including affluent men of different professions and the performers La Goulue and Jane Avril. The various portraits portray an insider’s view of the ostensibly bohemian nightlife and more importantly, the convergence of different lives. The painting includes a self-portrait, in the center of the composition, an important inclusion in the larger context of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.

The work employs a compositional device used frequently by Vermeer and Degas; figures interact behind a structure (in this case a table) that separates the viewer from the action in the painting. The formal obstruction indicates something about access and makes the viewer aware of her or his position as a viewer or voyeur – standing outside of the scene. The smears of mustard yellow, dark orange and blue green paint contribute to an atmosphere that further reflect Toulouse-Lautrec’s interest in abstraction.

The Moulin Rouge — known as a revue where the Can-Can dance emerged — was situated in the Montmartre district in Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in the colorful and theatrical environment around the Moulin Rouge. It was a nightclub meant to titillate and entertain. It was also a crossroads. Toulouse-Lautrec was one of a handful of post-impressionist artists known for conveying images of “Modern life” in their paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec conveyed his idea of “Modern life” through unsparing (although non judgmental) representations of the people to whom he was drawn. The paintings don’t necessarily flatter, nor do they necessarily reveal the individual. They do however reveal Toulouse-Lautrec’s position within an important moment in Parisian culture, and from his rarified point of entry. He pursued a form of realism that relates to the realist artist Millet: real people.

7968203588_c26473ea0b_bHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  At the Moulin Rouge (Detail)

Toulouse Lautrec painted people he interacted with directly and often. The subjects of his paintings and drawings are generally at work. These are performative, portraits conveying the spirit of the gender dynamic at the time – animated representations of women and, on the whole, uniformly dressed men. At the Moulin Rouge the women are lit, glowing, colorful – there isn’t a sensible, consistent light source; female figures are highlighted and animated by the light. On the other hand the men portrayed in the work have a different kind of visibility. They recede, adorned by women. His subjects could appear provocative, decadent or taciturn – depending on who you (as the viewer) are.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s growth was stunted by an injury in childhood. His family wealth and access privileged him but health issues put him at odds with the aristocratic culture he was born into. His relationship to his sitters was direct – while he came from a different class he wasn’t living outside of the worlds he portrayed. He was between worlds. At the Moulin Rouge is a portrait of the convergence of Toulouse-Lautrec, the class he represented and the proletariat world of the Montmartre. He painted the people with whom he lived and worked. He wasn’t making a project or curiosity out of his subjects. His interest is an indication of a change in society.

While his relationships were authentic he could elect to move through this world of his own volition, and he did. At the Moulin Rouge is a snapshot of a romanticized moment in time – a place where bourgeois and aristocrats could gather and experience what might be called anti-bourgeois and anti-aristocratic plebian entertainment. *(1) Toulouse-Lautrec’s complex identity afforded him the opportunity to move among the people he painted, in some ways like a tourist, perhaps — but in the end he was not a tourist. He was a painter with an attraction to the colorful worlds that he could engage in as an artist– part documentarian, part connoisseur.

In an essay published by the Art Institute of Chicago, author Reinhold Heller discusses the history of At the Moulin Rouge and gives and exhaustive account of the destruction and reconstruction of the painting. It seems that the painting was cut into two sections for a time. May Milton was cut out of the painting – maybe for commercial purposes. It seems that the melding of these classes of people was not something that could be easily sold.

Because of my own practice, I have an interest in the complicated and sometimes contradictory nature of artists’ relationships to their subjects and At the Moulin Rouge is at the center of this dynamic that continues to compel me as well as many other writers and critics (Kehinde Wiley’s 2015 Brooklyn Museum exhibition review in the Village Voice is a great example).

We move quickly through influences as young artists, and have voracious appetites for work and artists who compel us. Some stick with us throughout our varied life experiences and travels. If we reflect on our interests long enough (and have the opportunity) we can begin to reimagine and make sense of some of those early, initial attractions. Thinking about painting reveals that there is always more than what is on the surface and the painting changes the viewer in this respect. The poet Rilke puts it this way:

…For here there is no place that does not see you.
You must change your life*(2).

American PrizeTim Doud, American Prize, 2014-2015, Oil on linen, 40 x 40 inches

*1) Rediscovering Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Moulin Rouge” Author(s): Reinhold Heller and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Source: Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, The Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection (1986), pp. 114-135 Published by: The Art Institute of Chicago

*(2)”Archaic Torso Of Apollo” – Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke

Peter Drake on Maso di Banco

Banco_Maso_St_SylvesterMaso di Banco, St. Sylvester Resurrecting the Two Magi Killed by a Dragon, c.1335,
Fresco, Cappella Bardi, S. Croce, Florence

One of my favorite paintings in the world is Maso di Banco’s St. Sylvester Resurrecting the Two Magi Killed by a Dragon and I’ve never seen it in person. When I was a teenager I stumbled upon the image in a Time/Life book on Giotto that I stole from my sister and it has haunted me ever since. I was struck immediately by how much better it was than any of Giotto’s other followers’ works. The fresco is built like a brick shit house and the power of its structure is something I sensed immediately without really understanding why.

You enter the painting through a broken arch whose flat top is echoed by a similarly arched, broken building in the middle ground and the parapets of a walled city in the distance. Even with some mildly wonky vanishing points, because of a repetition of forms, there is the sense that you are sitting front row center in a completely stable, and therefore believable, environment.

The first scene that you encounter is St. Sylvester slaying the dragon, but strangely, there is absolutely no bloodshed or violence. It is such a peculiar moment. The saint grabs the dragon’s snout while it bashfully backs away like a skittish colt. What should have been the dramatic money-shot is handled with almost somnambulant calm. It’s also worth noting that all of this is inexplicably taking place in a pit with two monks holding their noses and not lending a hand (the bible suggests that the two magi were killed by the dragon’s horrendous breath). Their presence in the pit, however, is part of a formal device that creates a large pyramidal shape whose peak is the top of the saint’s miter and whose base runs from the bottom edge of the pit to the top of the two dead pagans. This stabilizes the composition and creates a clear hierarchy with St. Sylvester at the top of the heap.

Banco_Maso_St_Sylvester_detailMaso di Banco, St. Sylvester Resurrecting the Two Magi Killed by a Dragon, Detail

There are two scenes being depicted here (the pagans are represented as both dead and alive) and if you’re reading from left to right the saint appears to be killing, rather than reviving them. In order to read the sequence properly, you have to hop over the resuscitated pagans, land on the dead ones and double back to the now kneeling, undead pagans. This appears to be intentional and very creative to me as it keeps you in a weird Möbius loop circling back and forth from the not-quite-slain dragon to the dead pagans and back again.

Curiously, there is a crowd of onlookers led by the Emperor Constantine who barely reacts to all the goings-on, which only heightens the dreamlike feeling of the piece. This is something that Maso learned from Giotto and it lends the scene a seriousness that can’t be achieved through operatic gesticulations. Any emotion that is conveyed by the fresco is actually supplied by the viewer. This is in keeping with the essential quality of Maso’s work. There is nothing extraneous in his paintings, no gewgas or jimcracks. Everything in Maso’s work has to be there like some form of representational minimalism. There are broken buildings that represent the end of the pagan era and fortified bulwarks that represent the Christian future and all of the figures have a role in advancing the narrative, but otherwise, the scene has been stripped bare.

The light in St. Sylvester is also remarkable. Set against a blue, black sky it is intensely directional with an almost lunar quality. All of the buildings and figures exist in clearly defined light and shadow but nothing in this pre-Masaccio world casts a shadow itself, which makes the scene all the more unreal. Everything seems to exist and not exist at the same time.

Maso also uses sharply defined pounce-lines that give the fresco a strangely contemporary, photorealist quality. Many fresco painters of the day tried to obliterate their pounce-lines as they were generally viewed as simple guides from the original cartoon to the finished piece. The fact that Maso not only chose to keep them in, but actually accentuated them, suggests that the heightened realism they provided was something he was striving for.

Ultimately the fresco is about the sea change event that occurred when the pagan culture of magic and superstition was replaced by the new Christian culture of gentle but all-powerful strength. The pagans are reborn in front of their leader who first witnesses the demise of a terrifying mystical creature. The struggle for life and death is caught in the ever-repeating loop represented by the dragon and the now-you’re-living-now-you’re-dead pagans.

Sadly, Maso di Banco died at the age of twenty-eight, long before he could have realized his full creative potential. I can only imagine what he might have achieved had he lived a long and productive life. It reminds me of all of the plagues, famines, and holocausts that have decimated creative lives throughout history.

Drake_Peter_Waiting_42x48inPeter Drake, Waiting, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 48 inches

Hanneline Rogeberg on Titian

Titian, The RapeTitian, The Rape of Europa, (Postcard Reproduction), 1560-62, Oil on canvas, 70 x 81 inches

I grew up seeing the paintings of Munch and minor works of Northern European artists in the flesh, most of them tipping the scale at maudlin/austere. Painting was subject matter to me, not object presence, which I thought would only distract with its human reminders of flaw. I wanted impersonal grandeur and overwhelming, invulnerable persuasiveness; I wanted to be silenced, and I wanted to learn from them how to be the silencer.

I saw The Rape of Europa as a projection in a lecture by the art historian Gloria Kury. I knew it only vaguely, and its title prepared me for just another in the long line of opulent misogyny. But she didn’t identify the slide and it took a while for me to recognize it. My English was wobbly then and I missed much, but we looked at the image for a long time. What I remember: note the putto riding a sea monster in the lower left corner in imitation of Europa clinging to the back of the bull on the right. Like the gun in the first act, or an hors d’oeuvre in preparation for the main meal.

As soon as I could I went to Boston to see the painting; hanging high above a door, it was dark, dirty and inaccessible. I felt no intimacy with it, but stocked up on reproductions before going home.

It is a rich dish. Jupiter, in the shape of a bull, abducts Europa from her homeland and carries her on his back to a cave on the island of Crete. (The source has an endless echo: Herodotus quotes a Persian king noting the prevalence of the taking of women such as Europa, Io, Medea, later Helen, and how women wouldn’t be abducted so much unless they wanted it.) Titian doesn’t show the rape. The world in the painting is cataclysmic and vertigo-inducing, though with an off-kilter horizon line and all boundaries between sky and land and sea dissolved. What is above and below, dry and wet, inside and outside, blind and sentient, ecstatic and terrified – I can’t draw the line. Instead of a landscape obeying elemental space, gravity and compass points, I see interiority and the bluish-purple of fascia and bruises. The woman and bull ride the peak of a rogue wave or convulsing muscle, the striations of wet pelt and torn garment run together and become interchangeable. Pieces of red cloth flap like displaced tissue in a Vesalius dissection. The corkscrewed tail emerging between Europa’s legs could be umbilical; at the other end of it, the putto rides his fish. He grips the fins with his limbs, cutely scrambling, whereas Europa’s legs and arms are flung wide open, exposing insides and undersides of the unbearably tender, least defended parts of the body. With its putto decoy, the human/bull pairing has a rhyme that makes you look back and forth, pulled by pattern recognition. While I study the tiny version, the huge, insupportable, monstrous version in my peripheral vision flies below my radar and knocks something loose, something systemic and category-dependent.

Titian was eighty-four when he painted the painting. The same year the Council of Trent set down its rules for the counter-Reformation, one of which says that (religious) painting shall not contain distracting and frivolous details.

I would have recognized the Council’s impulse when I was twenty. Without the cognitive foil, I would see only what I came prepared to see and be confirmed, knowing I was right. That totalitarian ideal would have been mine, not Titian’s. Instead, the too-muchness of The Rape of Europa, its unruly effect on me threatening in several directions at once, continues to irritate and inspire me about painting and thinking. As my attention snags on things refusing their categorization, it offers displacement activities for the brain’s normal defenses. Ploys to make my eyeballs tack back and forth, between putto and Europa in Titian’s case, or between tactile surface information and image in the case of painting in general, provide busy-work for the brain against otherwise unbearable recognitions, a kind of mercy. By inviting the eye to toggle an optical seam over contradictions, paradoxes and wounds, the frivolous and distracting do the job of making the intolerable tolerable.

I don’t have Titian’s material surface to add to the experience of his painting, but I have my own history with it. It follows my studio as a postcard, its iconography made up of paint stains, rips and holes from thumb tacks as much as Titian’s intended image.

rebound introvertHanneline Rogeberg, Rebound Extrovert, 2013, Oil on canvas, 96 x 96 inches

Jason Mones on Leon Golub

077.tifLeon Golub, Napalm I, 1969, Acrylic on linen, 117 1/4 x 213 inches

I had the honor of joining Leon Golub and Nancy Spero to preview a Max Beckman show one evening in 2003. Leon needed help physically getting around at this point in his life and I was honored to lend him a shoulder to lean on. We walked around together, me at a loss for words, Leon mostly interested in following the waiter with the bacon-wrapped shrimp. As we quietly perused the paintings, Leon would throw in a sly comment about Beckmann’s narcissism. Behind me, I could hear Nancy chastising Leon in a high-pitched voice about his heart condition. This brief brush with two of my heroes has stayed with me as comic relief when thinking about the serious nature of their work.

Originally, I was going to premise this essay on the idea that the New York art world is too timid these days to revisit Golub’s paintings. To my surprise however, there is an exhibition currently on view at Hauser and Wirth entitled “Riot”. It’s odd to see Leon’s work in this uptown, squeaky clean, posh neighborhood. Nonetheless, I am excited to visit these mammoths again.

Upon entering the gallery, I find that my busy thoughts evaporate. My merely human eyes attempt to inhale these gas giants, these looming figures caught in violent, still frames. Some are unstretched on raw canvas, hung with grommets. They ripple slightly in the silent, circulating air: skins from a different time.

Golub’s paintings are mesmerizing, haunting, encrypted with a visceral reality that reflects both our fierce and flawed characters. Starting in the late 60’s, they tread close to the atrocities of war, particularly Vietnam. In various places, large chunks of canvas are violently gouged out, occasionally taking parts of the figures along with them. They are monsters and I can never quite comprehend them in their totality, can never absorb enough of them through merely looking. It’s joyously frustrating.

The first painting that immediately springs toward me is entitled ‘Napalm I,’ from the Napalm series that Golub created in 1969. It is massive, measuring 10’ tall by 18’ wide. Paint is brutally applied as if history has moved its cracked fingers across the surface of the canvas. Two male figures barely touch: one horizontal, writhing on the floor, the other kneeling with one arm stretched out, palm open. The two men’s bodies are built up from a network of painted marks that describe an anxious circuitry of exposed muscle and bone. Stains of red and grey intermittently mark the browning canvas. With a bit of imagination, you can feel Leon’s process of working on both wall and floor, rotating these hides around, scraping their painted bodies to remove the beauty in the mark and the material. Their disproportionate limbs are not easy on the eyes. They are clumsy, awkward, and heavy. An arm is disembodied, painted barely to the edge of the canvas, as if the frame has snapped it in two. This series of paintings was done right before Leon became self-conscious of a gap he felt between his painted figures and the escalating war. Soon after, he began to clothe the figures and include modern weapons to be more relevant to the times. But, looking back at his career, I find a personal fascination with the timeless quality in this series, as they speak of the dark history of Man’s violent inner brutality, both tragically and compassionately.

It’s invigorating to see such honesty, and discovery in painting. By comparison, our current art universe feels a bit deficient, obsessed with spectacle and craft. Now more than ever, violent power structures within our civil society, and around the world, continue to eat away at human rights. Since artists still purportedly care very much about these subjects, why does it seem that this artistic generation has abandoned concern for the politically, or psychologically uncomfortable? Could it be that our wings have been clipped? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that younger generations are mired in student loan debt, and that studio rents have become too expensive and too small to exercise such an expanded and controversial vision? Whatever the reason may be, the art world has grown exponentially in numbers of artists and market interest but, by comparison, our bite feels timid.

AllthekingsmenJason Mones, All the King’s Men, 2013, Oil on canvas, 66 x 75 inches

Fabian Marcaccio on Jasper Johns

perilous_380Jasper Johns, Perilous Night, 1982, Encaustic paint, 5′ 7″ x 8′ 0″ x 0′ 6″

Jasper Johns is one of the more complex, evolving and sophisticated American painters of our time. Most American painters are voluntarily simplistic. They are proud of maintaining one single technique, working on one single support and keeping one single attitude over the course of their careers. Johns wants to be a complete painter, not a specialist in this or that. He keeps painting total and whole despite the fact that many see it as exhausted and fragmented.

In Perilous Night, Johns shows a complex take on abstraction and representation in the way that he brings together many manners of painting. This painting was executed during the 80’s, the decade of pastiche, irrationality and simulation. Johns answered this with irreducible complexity. His flags and maps from the 50s are great but this painting shows, in a humble way, all of the doubts, questions, and ambiguities he had about America. There are no easy solutions for Johns or any painter with a sense of responsibility to painting. This ghostly piece contains some of the more productive seeds that have been sown in American painting in the last 30 years.

In all of Johns’ work there is this oscillating, transitional brushwork that comes from Cezanne. Johns revives it from the chopping board of Cubism and brings it back as a stuttering pictorial mark, an uncertain way in and on paint. In Perilous Night, this uncertainty is reinforced by the use of double images and visual and tactile paradoxes. Johns confronts us with a pictorial mine field. He thinks through painting, as rationally as a human can, and finds expression in the end. These are not the irrational outbursts of Expressionism. He combines object, negative/positive space, camouflage, and diagrammatic drawing in a special integrational way. The parts that make up the painting are tied together like a chess game in a heterogeneous cohesion.

A rarified atmosphere emanates from the painting, a kind of intra-image, a spectrum rather than simulation. It is as if Johns wanted to investigate darkness and horror but, naturally, he could not. He positions himself as if he is at the gates of some great horror, looking in. He brings from the history of painting a fragment that contains the Stimmung of horror: Grünewald’s crucifixion. He asks Grünewald, “…Can you tell me about this horror?” Maybe, in many years-in-paint to come, we or somebody will get the answer. This is not appropriation. This is an organic, inter-pictorial regurgitation. This is the way painting communicates with painting internally. This is specific to wet pictorial thinking, not verbal thinking.

For the anti-painting critics, Johns is a kind of nightmare. He proves over and over again the relevance of painting, like in the complexity of Duchamp’s Tu m,’ as opposed to the all too easy-to-repeat-for-ever ready-made. Starting from Duchamp and Cezanne, Johns developed the Combine Painting, which brings together a cluster of pictorial paradoxes that are irreducible to conceptualism, formalism, abstractionism or realism. It is the foundation of really complex painting today.

onur gökçeFabian Marcaccio, Transport, 2013, Hand woven manilla rope, climbing rope, alkyd paint, silicone, wood,
82 x 94 x 6 inches

Tony Ingrisano on Yukinori Yanagi

yanagi2Yukinori Yanagi, Wandering Position, 1997, Line etching, 24 x 20 inches

Looking back, I am amazed that I was attracted to them at all; my tastes skew towards the insanely complicated and these pieces were really just simple line drawings. But it was that straightforward, clumsy mark that gave the works such an alluring composition. One continuous red line snaking back and forth against the rectangular surface of an etched plate, always concentrating near the edge, looking for a way out. There was an energy there. The long, uninterrupted mark had a life. The print had been pulled on paper significantly larger than the plate itself and it was this large white border that gave it a sense of possibility. There was potential for an escape; the line just hadn’t found an out yet.

Many years ago, I stood in front of five etchings from the series Wandering Position by Yukinori Yanagi at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA. They were small, 20”x24”, and (I later learned) part of a larger series that includes significant sized drawings made directly on the floor.

Standing in front of the prints, my eyes began wandering along with the mark; it was unbroken and didn’t seem to have a beginning or end. My eye traveled across this foreign arena looking for some reasoning behind these lines. Later, reading the wall text, I learned the artist had placed an ant in a box of the same dimensions as the plate’s surface, and used a red crayon to follow and replicate the ant’s journey across the plate, treading the edges, looking for an escape. Of course there was a little ant scurrying around trying to make sense of this new territory, this confusing new space. That’s exactly what I had done. It is this parallel between the experience of the subject and the viewer that makes these images so satisfying.

This piece opened up (for my young self) new possibilities of where ideas can come from. Yanagi had given control over the mark making to an ant, who was clearly unaware of any intention to make lines; it just wanted to escape. Shifting the onus of creative direction onto the subject and allowing the artist to be a stenographer who documents its journey was a powerful new idea for me. The prints also explore the idea of framing and edge, where the dimensions of the plate are defined only by activity that has taken place inside.

Another reason these etchings have stuck with me for so long is their embodiment of one of the characteristics I find so valuable in great art; the work required no explanation to pull me in. Although discovering the framework for Wandering Position added new layers of meaning to the work, the image itself is intriguing enough to warrant spending time with the piece.

Looking back, the work’s existence as a print is significant as well. It brings about questions I don’t have answers to, which I love. One of printing’s primary intentions is quick, easy dissemination. What does it mean to make copies of this singular ant’s irreproducible struggle and how does that refer back to the mark making itself and, in a broader sense, all marks made by artists? Does multiplying this experience elevate and imbue it with meaning it lacked as a singular entity, cheapen its uniqueness and individuality, or leave it somewhere in between?

Speaking of appropriately weighted layers, Yanagi has undertaken work from this series in many locations, and considers the meaning to shift with each staging. The artist writes that the pieces have referenced his own struggle to define himself as Japanese while working in North America. The work has also spoken to confinement and incarceration when executed on Alcatraz Island. These themes are provocative, rich in connotations and readings. But, for the most part, when viewing Wandering Position, I am caught in some weird world between artist and ant, on a terrifying, ecstatic journey to discover a place just beyond limitations.

LandMass6Tony Ingrisano, Aerial Cartography #6, 2014, Acrylic ink and graphite on cut and rearranged paper

Emily Noelle Lambert on James Turrell

review-erickson-josephs-coat-2011-c2a9-james-turrell-photo-by-giovanni-lunardi-webJames Turrell. Joseph’s Coat, 2011, Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida
© James Turrell, Photo by Giovanni Lunardi.

Faced with the task of writing for Painters on Paintings, I wanted to find a painting that stopped me dead in my tracks. A strike of cadmium red cutting through to my soul, a work that stops everything for me. Painting can do that – Caravaggios and Beckmanns have pulled me close from across a museum floor. Sometimes, it is color that does this for me: a swath of blue green against a coral pink. After a long winter and a cool spring, I find that my inspiration stems from color, arresting me and connecting me in time.

This February I was at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota installing four of my wooden sculptures. One evening, the museum emptied of its guests, the curator Matthew McLendon mentioned he needed to check on something in James Turrell’s Skyscape titled Joseph’s Coat. Finished in 2011, it is Turrell’s largest Skyscape in the United States, boasting a twenty-four foot aperture. After finishing up in the galleries, I wandered through the empty museum to find Matthew. I expected him to be bent over his phone sending emails, ready for a bucket-sized margarita. Instead, I was surprised to find his six-foot-plus frame lying in the middle of the tiled floor ofJoseph’s Coat, his laptop open next to him playing Tibetan singing bowls. Above, the sky was changing colors as the interior of the space slowly shifted hues via illuminated LED lights. Dropping my bag, I too sprawled out on the floor.

I was stopped in my tracks and given no choice but to be still and take in the piece. It was one of those experiences with art that is simultaneously immediate and infinite. The kind of experience that makes me think of what Gaston Bachelard’s said about immensity in his book The Poetics of Space: “Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests…As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense. Indeed, immensity is the movement of motionless man. It is one of the dynamic characteristics of quiet daydreaming.” 

Lying there, captivated by the theatrics of light, I was floating in a visual daydream. I was pulled into the color of the lights—the sunset transforming the sky, the square hole in the ceiling smoothly sliding between greens, pinks, blues, the whole ceiling and sky briefly uniting. The square window opened up, receded into the distance and then, as the color transformed, the sky came forward. Each subtle shift in color had me in rapt attention. I reached for my phone, hoping to snatch an image of one of the color combinations, but it was impossible—this was something only to be consumed in that moment.

Long legged egrets swooped over the opening; a hot pink wisp of cloud danced across the stage. I floated along with the shifting sky, anticipating the next gem to reveal itself. Color theory in action: the sense of foreground and background, the confluence of the manmade and the natural display. Oh to recall the sky does these tricks daily, twice daily, constantly sweeping across with incredible color if we only stop to marvel.

I do not think I have the language to pin down what happened—the rush of color, slap of space, floating, flying, opening—combinations of tones I wanted to burn into my brain, to recreate later on a canvas. I know I felt a distinct sense of immediate immensity. A feeling that comes occasionally in the making of art and in the looking.

It was Joseph Albers, J.M.W. Turner and meditation practice wrapped into one.

I was receiving quick lessons in the sublime, immensity and the infinitesimal all at once. I was connected to the vibrations and ancient qualities of color. I also had an overwhelming sense that by being still, by clearing space, things were unfolding. As a painter, I am intimately familiar with the time I need to spend staring at colors, waiting for them to speak to me, to tell me what happens next. I begin my paintings by putting color on the canvas; the conversation unfolds in a sequence of color that moves between discord and harmony.

Watching the sky through the Turrell Skyscape, I thought about how no two experiences of this piece could ever be the same. A work of art is part collaborative collage with the universe.

The hour-long “show” ended when the sky was deep inky blue/black/purple and the color in the room faded slowly to white. Then it became a Malevich painting, the sky back in its proper place, the room illuminated, the sent of jasmine wafting around us. I returned again to the feel of the cool cement on my back.

Is it magic, this type of artistry? I love to think about how it acts as a bridge in time, how a painting made 40, 400, or 4000 years ago jumps out at us like a guard dog ready to attack, full of life and force. Great art invites us to connect to the present while echoing clearly from the past.

DSC_3601Emily Noelle Lambert, Veil (from the darkness to the light), 2014, Acrylic and wood on panel, 42 x 33 inches