Looking into the blind spot

Frank Stella | NUVO

I have never finished reading Frank Stella’s Working Space, a long and impressively written essay on the evolution of “pictorial space” in Western painting. It’s done as a coffee table art book, with lavish illustrations, so reading is optional. For a while, I loved listening to him talk about art, but early on I decided to get off the train at the nearest stop because I gathered what appeared to be its destination: positioning his work in the ongoing history of art. It’s a fascinating argument, because Stella can be a spell-binding rhetorician. His prose draws you in with its magisterial command of art history and his unique position as a pioneer in painting back when it was still possible to be such a thing. I suspect he has never gotten over that—who could? —and this book struck me as his attempt to characterize his entire body of work as pioneering. The book is bold, brilliant, and sometimes baffling, but I didn’t mind that last part, because his slippery prose has rewards of its own. That’s how rhetoric works: it draws you in with its momentum. He seems to be arguing for his later three-dimensional work, on shaped canvases, as a new way of painting “pictorial space” comparable in its paradigm shift, historically, to the intimate, cinematic depth of field Caravaggio brought to painting in his own time.

I don’t know. Aren’t Stella’s constructions more of an idiosyncratic fusion of painting with sculpture?  I love his ebullient, affirmative energy, no matter what he’s doing. So does he need to cling to his pioneer status, especially when “progress” in visual art exhausted itself in the 60s?

Along the way in Working Space, though, Stella says things, in quasi-poetic idioms, where he finds brief, profound ways to veer out of his swim lane. It’s hard to tell if he knows he’s no longer talking about space or the depiction of space, but about epistemological quandaries fundamental to human life, not simply in the art of painting. Without warning, he slides into a passage about the limits of human knowing, the limits of knowledge itself, not just whatever is the case with things shown or signified. It’s evocative language that seems better delivered in stanzas than paragraphs. The italics are mine:

This ephemeral quality of painting reminds us that what is not there, what we cannot quite find, is what great paintings always promise. It does not surprise us, then, that at every moment when an artist has his eyes open, he worries that there is something present that he cannot quite see, something that is eluding him, something within his always limited field of vision, something in the dark spot that makes up his view of the back of his head. He keeps looking for this elusive something, out of habit as much as out of frustration. He searches even though he is quite certain that what he is looking for shadows him every moment he looks around. He hopes it is what he cannot know, what he will never see, but the conviction remains that the shadow that follows but cannot be seen is simply the dull presence of his own mortality, the impending erasure of memory. Painters instinctively look to the mirror for reassurance, hoping to shake death, hoping to avoid the stare of persistent time, but the results are always disappointing. Still they keep checking. We can see Caravaggio looking at himself from The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, Velásquez surveying his surroundings in Las Meninas, and Manet testing the girl at the bar to see if there is anything different about those who have to work rather than see for a living.

Stella bears down on something fundamental to human experience at the start of this passage: the way in which knowledge traffics in the light of day, what’s available to limited, temporal, personal experience. It’s always incomplete, provisional, pragmatic, rational. It’s how we survive, by larding the brain with information and an understanding of how things work. But what encompasses all of this conscious experience and understanding eludes us: the world itself. Knowledge and daily experience necessarily overlook the whole world. We can’t objectify or picture the entire world because we are a part of it; we see it from our little perch, fragmented, dissected into things and actions, desires and deadlines. The entirety of what is, including our own minds, can’t come into view, can’t be known.

Stella’s “dark spot that makes up the view of the back of his head” reminds me of the hooded figure in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, an unfamiliar companion, an indispensable shadow. (Stella confuses the issue by locating this darkness in the blind spot behind the viewer but also “within his limited field of vision.”) In a way, though, that odd contradiction expresses what’s profound in the passage: the entirety of the world is there, throughout all of human experience, present—like a scent—in every perception and thought, throughout our field of vision, but also inaccessible, at the back of the head, behind the act of seeing and knowing, at the root and foundation of consciousness itself, unseen and unknown.

The painter constantly yearns to represent this totality, this world that includes the painter and the act of painting, but there’s no way to get outside that world in order to see it, to picture it. He nails the quandary: “He keeps looking for this elusive something, out of habit as much as out of frustration. He searches even though he is quite certain that what he is looking for shadows him every moment he looks around. He hopes it is what he cannot know, what he will never see, but the conviction remains that the shadow that follows but cannot be seen . . . (is, essentially, death.)” This is a radical shift. What he seemed to have been saying is that this shadow, what’s unseen in the act of seeing, is life itself. He pivots to mortality and the “impending erasure of memory.” Now the passage sounds like an elegy to lost youth, a dirge about approaching senescence. He finishes with a little quick take on Manet, beautiful and obliquely to the point—Manet trying to climb out of himself to see the world as it actually is, not simply the way he habitually sees it—but he has lured the reader away from what he nearly said. Saying it directly—we can’t know life itself as we know what we experience from hour to hour as an individual—would have required him to stay there, contemplating something more philosophical than ways to work with the nature of space in painting. He needed to stay on point in order to do what he sets out to do: ensure his pioneer status in his three-dimensional work.

Painting can be a confrontation with the limits of what a human being can know. By the limits of knowing, I don’t mean in the Rashomon sense that we are all locked into a particular opinion of an event or thing simply by the accidents of our location or time or personality. That’s what the apophatic root of post-modernism has become, narrowed to a political and social and economic truism: human beings create truth with power. We live in a time when those with the most power think science provides everything human beings need to understand about human life. Science is our most powerful tool for bending nature to our will, caging the world with our conceptions about it. It’s a tool. It doesn’t tell us what the whole of the world is, except in its own pragmatic terms. It doesn’t open a human heart to a glimpse of the totality of a life. Knowledge is like a flashlight that illuminates only what it’s aimed at. You have to aim it and thereby cut off your ability to see everything that surrounds the beam of light.

C.S. Lewis understood this in his own way. Toward the end of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he engages the reader with odd terms for the distinction between the object of knowledge and the act of knowing. This sounds incredibly dry, and it pretty much is, if you read it dispassionately. Yet there’s an insight in all of it that is lost on most of humanity, in its general lack of self-awareness. He refers to lectures from an early 20th century philosopher, Samuel Alexander, who as far as I know has completely sunk from view. It takes patience and attention to see what Lewis is getting at, but I was reminded immediately of it when I read that passage above from Stella.

In this book, Lewis talks about an experience of Joy he has throughout his life, a bittersweet sense of the totality of life, with a simultaneous mixture of rapture and painful yearning. A bit like being in love. His pursuit of this experience leads him toward the end of the book to these lectures from Alexander and they alter his understanding. The Joy he describes has no determinate object. The pursuit of Joy, as an experience, ignores that this particular state has no object in the known world, but is a desire for something absolute or transcendent, a totality, a world, something that can’t be known:

I read in Alexander’s Space Time and Deity his theory of “Enjoyment” and “Contemplation”. These are technical terms in Alexander’s philosophy; “Enjoyment” has nothing to do with pleasure, nor “Contemplation” with the contemplative life. When you see a table you “enjoy” the act of seeing and “contemplate” the table. . .  In bereavement you contemplate the beloved and the beloved’s death and, in Alexander’s sense, “enjoy” the loneliness and grief. We enjoy the thought (that Herodotus is unreliable) and, in so doing, contemplate the unreliability of Herodotus.

I accepted this distinction at once and have ever since regarded it as an indispensable tool of thought. A moment later its consequences–for me quite catastrophic–began to appear. It seemed to me self-evident that one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope, or desire was attention to their object. To cease thinking about or attending to the woman is . . .  to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing is . . . to cease being afraid. But to attend to your own love or fear is to cease attending to the loved or dreaded object. In other words, the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment . . .

In introspection we try to look “inside ourselves” and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it.

This is akin to that shadow at the back of Stella’s head: no matter how you turn around to look at it, it’s always back there behind your eyes. Lewis goes on:

Unfortunately, this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or by-product for the activities themselves. That is how men may come to believe that thought is only unspoken words, or the appreciation of poetry only a collection of mental pictures, when these in reality are what the thought or the appreciation, when interrupted, leave behind–like the swell at sea, working after the wind has dropped.

This discovery flashed a new light back on my whole life. I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate (the act of “enjoyment” itself).

All of the later Wittgenstein seems to be indicated by this passage. It sounds at first like an observation that has more to do with Lewis than with anyone else, but it’s a fundamental epistemological mystery as profound as anything Kant investigated. What we are, what we experience, what makes us human, what makes life a life, eludes the act of knowing because “we murder to dissect.” To get a clear glimpse of anything that gives life “meaning” or savor or (insert the word that doesn’t exist for life’s isness here) –to see life itself for what it is—we have to stop living as it were in order to contemplate it. The act of wanting or seeing or loving has to pause in order for the subject to pay attention to it: so it’s forever out of view, forever a shadow at the back of the head. The nature of who you are, and of what your life is, remains out of view, because you can’t both live and see clearly the life you embody, the person you are. You can only live and try to keep an eye on your own observable behavior for clues. In other words, Being itself remains mysterious because for human beings it’s a sequence, a flow, of behaviors that matter only from the inside, from within the givens of groping forward as a human being, as you live your life. You can’t step outside any of that to get a good look at it and thus know it as you know the table that sits in your kitchen.

There’s an instant humility engendered by an understanding of what Lewis was saying. Knowing itself, the act of knowing, is driven by feeling, desires, moods, purposes that arise from impulses that precede our intentions and thoughts—and it all becomes a fabric of experience, a way of life that can’t be clearly understood in its totality because to try and see it is to quit living, to step back from the act of living itself.

Much like music, painting is a way of aiming toward a perceptual wholeness that might trigger an awareness of a wholeness akin to it in one’s own experience, an inkling, like Lewis’s Joy, of life’s isness. There’s nothing definitive about most individual works of art, nothing that will do this invariably or for everyone, but as Stella suggests, intentionally or not, the impulse to honor that wholeness by putting paint on a surface in a certain way, is to wrestle with that shrouded figure who haunts us and hunts us all because he is who and what we are.




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