At the beginning of Moby Dick, Ishmael encounters a strange painting hanging in the entry of an old inn. Dimly lit and “thoroughly besmoked,” it was an indistinguishable mix of “shades and shadows” with a “long, limber, portentous black mass of something hovering in the center.” It seemed a picture of primal chaos, suffused with “a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it,” prompting Ishmael to obsess about its meaning.
It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale. – It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements. – It’s a blasted heath. – It’s a Hyperborean winter scene. – It’s the breaking up of the ice-bound stream of Time. – But at last all those fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great Leviathan himself?
Ishmael might have been contemplating the inky monolith of a late Rothko, or one of Morris Graves’ dark wartime nocturnes of a restless and tormented life force. It was a classic experience of the Sublime, where the human and the known are overwhelmed by the transcendent and the unknowable. Whether you are Moses enveloped in Sinai’s stormy cloud or a tourist gawking at Niagara Falls, you feel a sense of shock and awe in the presence of a wild uncontrollable force. For a moment, at least, the stable coordinates of the humanly constructed world are blown away. The tourist may escape with merely a pleasant shudder, but the saint is swept into the divine abyss.
The Sublime is the annihilating negative which questions, disrupts, challenges a world too narrowly constructed in our own image. It is the vast unknowable desert that lies beyond our maps; the nameless voice that asks ‘Why?” and “Why not?”; the apocalypse that rejects the finality of empires. It is the dark night of the soul where language fails and silence speaks; the radically other, ungrasped by imagination; the formlessness prior to every making. It is the ending that births the beginning.
Artists have long attempted to convey the transcendent through sensuous means and materials, but only in the last century have some of them tried to do it without using recognizable images or narratives. Color, shape and texture in themselves would be sufficient to make visible the underlying essence of reality, according to pioneers of the abstract like Kandinsky. As Barnett Newman said in a 1948 manifesto, “We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting.” An abstract canvas could provide direct revelation through pure sensation, unmediated by stories or symbols or replications of the material world.
Whether the “abstract sublime” actually put the viewer in closer touch with the deepest reality, or was just another form of representation as “fictional” in form as a biblical scene or a landscape, has been widely debated. Can any image be identical to what it portrays? And is form only something that exists in the perceiving mind, and not a quality inherent to the universal flux? If deepest Reality, or God if you will, is unrepresentable, how can you make a picture of it? Can you stand before of the saturated hues of a Rothko and believe you are in the presence of the transcendent? Some have. I have.
Most artists today are reluctant to make overt claims for their work as spiritual events between viewer and the transcendent, as deep speaking to deep. In the postmodern play of signifiers, there is no divine Voice, no Reality trying to communicate with us from a realm beyond finite language. As atheist philosopher Richard Rorty reductively put it, “the world does not speak. Only we do.”
That is not my experience. Nature has spoken to me. Sacrament has spoken to me. Christ in my neighbor has spoken to me. And art, both figurative and abstract, has spoken to me, most recently in the paintings of Morris Graves in a revelatory exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical.
The exhibition makes a case for Seattle as the birthplace of modernism in American art. Mark Tobey’s “white writing” paintings, where thin lines of white paint permeate scenes like an energy field binding all things together, have been credited with the invention of gestural painting, which Jackson Pollock would adapt and make famous. Both Tobey and Graves, imbued with the art and the spirituality of Asian and Northwest native cultures, approached their work with a mystical sensibility that impressed East coast critics and artists alike. Even when the New York School veered away from the spirituality of art into pure painting free of “meaning,” the Northwest painters continued to make substantial connections between art and spirit.
I was particularly moved by Graves’ World War II work. Jailed for refusing to fight, Graves was profoundly troubled by the madness and destruction of the conflict, what he called “the death of all reason.” When he was released in 1943, he began to paint feverish visions of a monochrome night world on the verge of ending, as darkness and deluge swirled all around. There were forms – a crow, a minnow, a waning moon – which resisted the devolution into utter chaos. These few were signs of resistance and grace. Graves wrote of the minnow:
Silvery minnow-moment of awareness flash-gleaming in the depths, now seen, now gone … when crisis occurs, the minnow voluntarily comes into view – to renew faith and give direction.
But Graves’ wartime paintings never showed more than brief glimmers of hope in a world of threat and horror. It was not until the war ended that Graves could fill a canvas with light, in his depiction of a brilliant lotus flower in bloom. This Buddhist symbol of meditation and enlightenment could be seen as a victory of light over darkness, but some have noted the bloom’s resemblance to a nuclear cloud. As with the August 6th coincidence of Hiroshima Day with the Feast of the Transfiguration, the struggle between life and death is far from done.
Graves believed that art has a profoundly meaningful task, and something Theodor Adorno said might well be applied to Graves’ own work:
Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.
Art can reveal the poverties and distortions of the world.
Can it also enable us to stand in the “messianic light?”
Are there indeed showings of the divine in color, form and light?
On the day after the Feast of the Epiphany in 1956, Sylvia Plath wrote a postcard to her mother, describing her visit to the Matisse Chapel on the Riviera. The entrance was shut when she arrived. The chapel only opened twice a week, and on the other days not even rich tourists waving large sums of money could gain admittance. Plath was “desolate” at her bad timing. She wandered glumly around the walls enclosing the chapel, “feeling like Alice outside the garden.” Then she returned to the locked gate and stood quietly.
I began to cry. I knew it was so lovely inside, pure white with the sun through blue, yellow and green stained windows.
Then I heard a voice. ‘Ne pleurez plus, entrez,’ and the Mother Superior let me in, after denying all the wealthy people in cars.
I just knelt in the heart of the sun and the colors of sky, sea and sun, in the pure white heart of the chapel. ‘Vous êtes si gentille,’ I stammered. The nun smiled. ‘C’est la miséricorde de Dieu.’