I write from the fleece and denim of this perch, this columbarium of regard, my back to the action in this room large enough to have a bit of weather of its own. The weather is always its sounds, of course, as well as its material and chromatic affects.
We regard the chill stinging pleasure of sleet on cheek; the melancholy of nacreous fog; the sanguine glow of an approaching storm; but all this touch and light are on us with sounds, large and small—oh, better said, loud or soft—to make of the one experience a reminder of its choral (communal) aspect. Is suffering in silence still suffering? We speak of suffering the weather, but it is not you who makes us suffer. We have to go out in the rain.
Weather, how is it that you offer yourself to the commentary of painters? I visited the Frick today with my wife and our good friends. We four enjoyed the luxury of the place, including its interior garden whose potted plants are lulled by the splashing fountain but also the murmuring visitors. The garden makes a little more wild air to breathe between looking at pictures. I write to report on the weather I saw in Hobbema, in Gainsbourough, in the window behind the soldier in the Vermeer.
Meyndert Hobbema, Village Among Trees, Oil on oak panel, 30 x 43 1/2 inches
The Hobbema, Village Among Trees, makes for its viewers only a short walk through weeds to reach its cluster of cottages. These homes are indeed nestled within an arboreal embrace. Tree branches reach around walls, peer over roofs, skirt the spaces of yards (or whatever was meant by cleared ground by the thresholds of peasants). The scene doesn’t bar us from entry, but neither has the artist run his path toward our regard. Why aren’t we closer? Why this distance, however modest, that makes the windows into lusterless frontings of darkness? Because the sky is the picture’s true subject. The heavy clouds fill its air with their ponderous mass. Cumulonimbus. Little popcorn puffs or higher, more distant, cirrus—impossible conjunctions of your real clouds, but a way for Hobbema to provide a shorthand for how the duration of a painting allows for some time. That is, how the time of making the work is something understood by its viewers as they give to it their portion of its accumulation of being seen.
Weather, do you suppose Hobbema gave thought to the long progression of this return? Of how the centuries to come would bring to his picture a continuing return on his investment? Hobbema’s clouds have gathered in the artist’s mind in order that their inscription in the scene mark the multiple seasons of his craft, close in one gesture or another, to the less extensive tasks of those villagers; pulling a weed, smoothing a pile of dirt, or even picking at one sore, one bite, or one crust of a particular meal. Hobbema’s brushes operate in similar fashion—rendering the dirt field one clump at a time, a thicket in sixteen strokes, a distant cloud in 100 gestures or more. Hobbema’s picture is still, but those clouds hint at an onset of weather.
Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. James’s Park, Oil on canvas, 47 1/2 x 57 7/8 inches
Gainsborough’s The Mall in St. James’s Park seems to be all weather. The figures in their strolling, or else lounging at the edges of the scene, are barely physical. The gestures that conjure them have left paint in place as if it were a settling of cosmic dust. Only the three little dogs are given materialized forms. The sixteen women in their elegant dresses are diaphanous and disembodied, as if a rising wind could blow them away. Gainsborough has given us them as a collection of leaves, pinned to the canvas by pinheads of black and ultra blue; their eyes, eying each other in a play of status and social economy.
The scene shimmers, temporary in attitude at least, as a mirage. But when my gaze rises to take in the trees along the Mall, I shudder at the vivid and sour yellow of the sky. The movement of these figures is both framed by nature and erased by it. When one closes one’s eyes, the leaves will fall to the floor.
Weather, all the painters try to make you hold still. Stilled, the weather is proposed as something we can know. The stillness I speak of now isn’t yours, however. It isn’t even ours, except as the weather need be present in our history of fixing regard.
Thinking about the weather is itself a form of weather. Talking about the weather is already applying breath as an antidote to its effects. Painting the weather lends chemistry to speech in order that the weather stop (in the picture, at least) once and for all. But when we actually experience a lull in the weather – windless moment in the otherwise constant texture of the breeze, unaccountable pause in desultory splashings of a rain, instance of total whiteness in fog – such seconds can be dreadful. We are pierced by time only when it stops.
Weather, I am comforted by your constancy. Carry me with you through all my days. I’m thinking now about that little poem of Archie Ammons’s:
The reeds give way to the wind
And give the wind away.
Such little weather to provoke such economical closure. We’re recovering now from vaster weather, from a weather disaster with a sporty name. Sandy is the residue of beaches eaten by the sea, whose thirst required thousands of houses, leaving a salt flavor on so many lives. Weather, when you’re thirsty, woe betide us in our little vessels.
Thinking about the weather now, I become aware of a shift in the weather inside. I feel a wrap of coldness around my ankles, a tough of chill at my knees, while what of me leans above this page stays warm through the exertions of my writing. Do you feel yourself at work, weather? Are your forces marshaled in a play of gases?
There’s a history of eyes looking skyward, grasping the universal in the spray of stars, but only you, weather, can always see the stars. Perhaps cloudy nights are merely you wanting another look at them from the front of a point-of-view.
The elements of my interior weather come from sensory cues that seep into the narrative unfolding of my absorption. My task at hand occupies me in the comings and goings of what surrounds me here. Now passersby engage me as tableau escrivant, and even as this sentence unspools from my pencil so I see myself at work, not quite in my work now, having shifted to bring the sounds of the Armory into play. Murmurs, steps, creaking, the whispering reader, a child’s squeal, and a bell, from someone’s telephone? No, an actual bell, bringing a vibration of the mystical to what I am feeling here.
Weather, I am surprised by the beseechings of this crowd. The man who said hello just now added sotto voce, “I thought real artists draw instead of write.” I looked up to assess the speaker, then back to my task. Is there such a thing as real weather? Is a storm more real than a fog? Sleet more real than drizzle? What’s weather after all but its changes?
I wish to submit my weather report. The afternoon passed in the rain, the breeze of curtains lifted, then fallen, amid the scudding conversations. We all narrate the weather, don’t we? Pulling our beloved snow or fearful fog into earshot or in view. Mouth shut for the duration of this letter, my sleet, my drizzle, infuses a succession of pages that were until now so many parched fields.
. . . .
I return to my letter with a fresh supply of paper. Stepping away from this missive, I can recognize for a moment the exhilarating matter of writing itself. Weather, this is one of your secrets; writing the waves, singing the sleet, intoning the fog, inscribing all the world’s pages. I remember a line from James Schuyler’s Payne-Whitney poems, of Darragh Park coming to visit him, like “an exclamation point in the snow.” Schuyler, so often under the weather, was in a position to write as a weather vane, pointing ever in the direction of his interior winds. This may be another of your guises, weather, to dress reveries in various clouds.
Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl, 1657, Oil on canvas, 19.87 x 18.13 inches
But I’ve left another painting from the Frick out of this letter until now, the Vermeer, Soldier with Young Girl, or is it more simply titled Officer with Woman? I’ll do my research later, perhaps for another letter, but in this transcription I write of Vermeer’s weather. The officer has his back to us and we look past his red-caped mass and flamboyant hat at the woman’s face on which a smile is emerging, as marvelous and frail as a moment of sun through clouds. He’s said something to make her laugh, but Vermeer has given us no access to the joke. Instead, we regard its affect from a separate table, on our side of the picture plane.
To be present at the moment of a smile, to be its agent, is to be most present in weather. Vermeer has painted his picture with this belief. The officer is a near silhouette in the nacreous white marigold sunlight Vermeer has brushed onto his canvas to inscribe the weather beyond the partly opened window. That unseen sun smiles as well, and as well it should, seeing such stuff between these subjects.
Many years ago now I went to the Vermeer show at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. I stopped in front of The Girl With a Pearl Earring for perhaps ten minutes, such greediness in the midst of the passing throng. She, too, was painted on the verge of an emotion, but one more subtle than a laugh. We made eye contact, she and I, and I went away content.
[This writing stopped when the singer began her concluding song]
Buzz Spector, Tower #1, 2016, Collaged dust jacket elements on ink on paper, 52 x 38 inches, Collection: Polsinelli, St. Louis
Buzz Spector is an artist who also writes about art. He currently lives in St. Louis, where he teaches in Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.