It’s all about the light source

The latest group show at Viridian Artists, which came down a week ago, introduced me to an artist the gallery represents posthumously, someone whose work I’d glanced at in the past but hadn’t really seen. The show opened my eyes and heart to the subtle depth of Bruce Rosen’s work. His wife, Maxine, has been keeping her faith in his work alive by maintaining a long-standing membership at Viridian on his behalf. The Viridian website appears to be the only place you can get some idea of what he was doing in his quiet, philosophically sophisticated drawings in various media, mostly gouache and chalk on paper. What I’m having difficulty admitting is that this process of having my eyes opened has made me rethink, in some respects, my general philosophy of how art ought to operate on a viewer. This slightly puzzled admission is laden with paradoxes I’m not sure how to sort out—more on that in a bit. These new mental adjustments remind me of conversations I had earlier this year with A.P. Gorney in Buffalo. One of his personal tenets—art is not visual—stuck in my craw because for me painting needs to work subconsciously in an exclusively visual way, a peer-to-peer connection, as it were, right brain to right brain, leaving the left brain out of the conversation entirely. It’s my extreme response to the decades of conceptualism in art, which now seems to have lost steam. Gorney simply meant that art is more than visual sensation, and no one would disagree. Yet, in the past century, as more and more conceptual issues have crept into visual art, and it has begun to work in extra-visual ways, that left brain has come into play. In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe took aim at the art of his time on the grounds that it was work that depended intrinsically on the musings of art critics, such as Clement Greenberg—art was merely a painted version of their words, more or less, in his metaphor. It’s not a delicate metaphor, but something of Wolfe’s insight has stayed with me and made me distrustful of art that requires a back story, or any kind of support from words, in order to do its job. This recent encounter with Rosen’s work has made me question all of this, just a bit.

The work on view in September at Viridian was small, a a diptych in acrylic and crayon, on paper mounted on canvas, entitled Both/And. It appears to be a vision of a spiritual night and day, and it captured my attention when I was hanging the group show a month ago, even though I knew nothing about Rosen. I lingered over it and moved on with my duties. At the time, it looked expressionistic, indebted slightly to Rothko, but also Susan Rothenberg. And there was a Cy Twombly feel to his line and handling of color. When Maxine Rosen saw my own contribution to the show, an artist’s book, with paired poems and images, based on the Zen Buddhist Ox-Herder series, she contacted me about Bruce’s work saying that poetry was also a factor in his art, and that another poet, Jill Bart, had once suggested Both/And could be a vision of the Buddhist notion of bardo, a state after death and between lives:

What I do want to tell you is that Bruce was a serious student of Zen Buddhism, that he meditated each day. I’ve had people who meditate tell me that viewing a Bruce painting is like the experience of meditation.

I told her that I’ve been a student of Zen Buddhism since college, and have been a member for many years of the Zen Center here in Rochester, founded by Philip Kapleau. I’ve participated in several extended meditations there, called sesshins, but mostly I do my sitting at home. She wrote:

My guess is that you and Bruce have read many of the same books, judging from his bookshelf. Once he began to meditate, I don’t recall his joining a zendo or participating in any other communal activities, but surely Bruce found the act of meditating of value or he wouldn’t have continued on with it. When you see more of his paintings, I wonder if you’ll discern a relationship between Zen and his art. I can’t tell you what Bruce was thinking when he worked on Both/And. At some point Bruce said something like ‘Scientists are the luckiest people. Imagine spending your days trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe.’ My own thought, for what it’s worth, is that, in part, his paintings were explorations into those mysteries.

Just this brief conversation with Maxine about Rosen’s work changed my understanding of it and sensitivity about what he was trying to visualize as he was putting chalk on paper. (For one thing, I’d love to own one of his pieces, and I’d explore that now if I had money to buy art, rather than simply art supplies.) Yet, more significantly, the way this sample of his biography has altered what I see when I look at the work makes me question, a bit, my underlying assumptions about how I want my own painting to work. I’ve based my work on the notion that visual art can be something akin to an act of meditation and what’s achieved through meditation is a state of intense attention, a mindfulness, that arises by silencing the process of thinking. My motto might be distilled down to a simple admonition: Quit thinking, but keep looking. Understanding and insight will arise on its own. It applies both to the act of painting and the act of looking at a work executed with the kind of mindfulness good painting requires. In other words, it applies to both painter and viewer. In the process, an entire world of values and experiences can saturate the painted image, subconsciously, and this world of experience conveys itself to the viewer silently, subconsciously, in a way that’s inaccessible to rational analysis. As I’ve put it elsewhere in this blog, it’s similar to the way you intuitively grasp who another person is, within a few minutes of meeting that person: through a kind of global, holistic intuition of another human being’s identity. You feel at home with that person, or you don’t. And what you get through this sense of friendship isn’t really accessible to rational dissection or conceptual thought. It’s more fundamental. In a way, I see painting, in the Zen phrase, as a “direct seeing into the nature of things.” Again, the way painting works, for me, is how Proust’s madeleine worked in his great novel, where one taste of the tea-infused cake opened up an entire world of experience to his narrator, resurrecting for him a whole period of life from the past. It was about apprehending an entire world, not a set of ideas about various parts of it.

I continue to think this is how painting can work, but it seems the left brain I’d like to put into lockdown can continue to play a helpful role in enabling me to be even more receptive to the nature of the world I’m seeing when I look at a painting. A bit of background and story enabled me to look at the work differently. In other words, thinking helped me to quit thinking and look more effectively. That’s the paradox. Now, when I look at Rosen’s small, profound images, I don’t think of expressionist concerns now—though expressionism in the 50s was very much about drawing upon subconscious energies rather than conscious thought—but I see and feel in Rosen’s images a sort of inner morning, hints of something opening up, brightening, a calm receptivity trying to align itself with a source of light. Come to think of it, that sounds like my definition of painting after all.


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