Words vs. images

frankenSchjeldahl seems to choose the longest linguistic route between the first and last words of this paragraph from a review of Helen Frankenthaler’s work. It weaves its way from here to there in a way I enjoyed. Google maps could have gotten him from start to finish in about a third of the time, but he’s dancing around his topic here like Francis Bacon writing about truth. I’m pretty sure he’s veering toward and away from something fundamental for me: that great visual art often has no content apart from the work itself. I would go further and say visual art that best embodies what visual art alone can do should have no narrative content, no story, no “meaning” expressible in any way other than what’s seen in the image. It evokes a world more than a story. Yes there are plenty of great paintings that serve to illustrate a story or make a “statement” about something good or bad: much of the work of one artist I love, Bruegel, is hard to distinguish from illustration. Icarus falling from the sky, a peasant wedding, a drunken dance, Spain’s invasion of the Low Countries, and so on, all of which almost require a cinematic narrative the paintings reduce to a single frame. Even Winter Hunters evokes a day in the life of the men coming home through the snow, though its power, I think, comes from the way it conveys an entire season, if not an entire life, all at once, lifted out of time and any sequence of events. The story drops away and all you see is winter, winter, winter, in the ecstatic way Elizabeth Bishop forgot about the act of catching a trout and saw nothing but rainbow, rainbow, rainbow. The story of Vermeer’s milkmaid begins when she starts to pour and ends when she stops. It’s the timeless world her image evokes that matters. Anyway, here is Schjeldahl’s meditation on how the mind refuses to give up its thirst for narrative when looking at a work of art, even if that hungry mind has to frantically start imagining the painter’s circumstances, the world that gave birth to a painting, rather than narrative “meaning” intentionally embedded in the image itself. In other words, he seems to be saying, a brother’s gotta think!  With all due respect, to Peter and Pieter both, I beg to differ:

Color-field climaxed a modern ambition to expunge narrative content from painting. You were meant to be alone—“autonomous” was a byword—in wordless communion with art, as with a sunset. But art, unlike nature, requires someone to perform an act of will, and where there’s a mind directing a hand there’s a story. If the story is excluded from a picture, it will reconstitute around it as art criticism, which provides a set of thoughts for the reasons that, as you look, you should abandon thinking. That isn’t fair to individual aesthetic experience, which may find drama in abstraction and transport in realism. It also leaves out of account the worldly circumstances that impel and reward changes in art. Those turned out, by the end of the sixties, to endorse almost anything but more color-field. Color-field paintings are period artifacts, some of them lastingly enjoyable, of a peculiar presumption. — Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, Sept. 22, 2014


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