LIGHT IN THE NIGHT, AT NIGHT

LIGHT IN THE NIGHT, AT NIGHT

Text published in the catalog

ARTE Y ESPIRITUALIDAD. IMAGINAR LO EXTRAORDINARIO. EN LA COLECCIÓN BBVA

Palacio de San Nicolás-Colección BBVA-Bilbao, 2022

 

LIGHT IN THE NIGHT, AT NIGHT

Alfonso de la Torre

 

Imagining the extraordinary

Maurice Blanchot[1]

 

 


Kazimir Malevich
Black Suprematic Square
1915
Oil on canvas
79.5 x 79.5 cm
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

 

Is it true that over there, just as here, there’s no light but in the night, and through the night?

Yves Bonnefoy[2]

 

The form emerges, seemingly springing up from the darkness. Realm of shadows raging against the light, opus nigrum, recalling Marguerite Yourcenar,[3] time also draws: it is Malevich’s black square on a white background or, in its retort, a white (listing) square on white that leads to the heart of Robert Ryman’s paintings. I found shelter, Malevich would say, in the form of the square. Ancestral home, Ryman found it in monochromatic white: white, white victory,[4]luminous cosmos, disciplined tempest of whiteness,[5] mystical venture that shifts the created towards a supernatural, secret space comparable to a sublime abode (an ineffable mystery, that shelter). But also the transcendent beauty of the Rothko-esque extensions which, colliding with the visible, we can associate with the evanescent rumour of Morton Feldman’s Structures (1915), floating, numinous music, sounds as miraculous activations. Let us step back to contemplate The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (1958–1966) by Barnett Newman, lines shared between shadow and light, radiance in the glass of night. Why are we abandoned in the world?

As if delayed, Paul Klee’s strange prophecies-cum-atmospheres arrived, causing a fortunate and significant interregnum to swell and lead us to the unfathomable cosmos: ‘Things can also happen differently, […] there are certain regions in which other laws are in force, for which new symbols must be found […] The atmospheric zone, and its heavier sister the watery zone, can lend us a helping hand by which eventually to reach cosmic space.’[6] The blinding force of Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings (1953–1967), bearers of a vigorous silence: seeing all with nothing to see, displaced beholders, listening attentively, seemingly eager to collude in the appearing act of forms, striving for true vision. Calm. We rest, ah, facing the garden of Ryōan-ji in Kyoto to the point of emptiness, as evoked by John Cage.[7] Like a breathing exercise more spiritual than formal, extreme emotional power and intense mystery face off before those totem sculptures, Tony Smith’s cubes, like that Die (1962–1968): in their hermetic closure they will transcend matter, explaining and inflating the surrounding space and summoning the power of distance to which Walter Benjamin alluded: a spectral artistic object conceived as something always yet to come, sending up a nocturnal prayer: ‘I sat alone for a long time in a quiet place,’ Smith would say, ‘and I saw the night come up just like that.’[8]

Giacometti’s sculptures, with their irreplaceable quality, turned places into temples, Jean Genet wrote.[9] Art, last bastion of thought, the disbelieving and nihilistic twentieth century found that the reflection of numerous artists was incardinated in an ascetic and transcendent gaze, let us look now to Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). The goal was to draw the eye towards mystical expressions of existence that might refer, as in Rothko’s case, to both the sacred and the profane, but in any event they were expressions that summoned the beholder to the quiet retreat of a solitary encounter, a hermeneutics that pushed and pulled towards another event, the subjectivity of perception, in a world come undone, the proposition of an internalised encounter with painting. Like the offer to create a place where the elimination of obstacles between creator and beholder seemed possible, so that the one beholding would be removed to an alter-place, the subjective distanced, space an emptying. Removing the obstacles between the two positions, the art object and its beholders, for Rothko, in that progress towards clarity, history, memory or geometry were obstacles.[10] Even the gaze itself, often altered by routine seeing, could be another hindrance.

And so it is possible to comprehend that the list of artists who might be classified as ‘religious’ or devoted to reflecting on transcendental matters—Matisse and Rothko are examples of artists who engaged in extreme philosophical exploration—would be long indeed: ‘I’m interested only,’ Rothko wrote, ‘in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on.’[11] For that reason, much of the contemporary history of forms should also consider its encounter with besieged twentieth-century thought—think of Nietzsche or Eliade, Adorno and Benjamin, Heidegger or Bloch, Derrida and Deleuze, the stateless Celan—in terms of the reflection on the sacred and the profane, the origin of the work of art,[12] on the purposes of creation, thus putting the governing principles of art into play once again, a movement which is also a relaunch and questioning of artistic objects, thereby giving them a distinctly ontological component.

Imagine the extraordinary, in the words of Maurice Blanchot, who attempted an honest approach to the question by observing that a creator should concern himself with imagining the spiritual ‘instead of forcing himself to actualize it in his existence’.[13] Let us imagine: the loftiest secrets could be probed using forms of communication such as the poetic voice and the expression of art, in an attempt to find the elusive truth, could chase it even knowing its thinking to be riddled with ideas which seemingly only it can attain, an effort without cease or respite on the artist’s part, as if to find were impossible. Inner experience as the response of one who decides to go after the questions, marches beyond in a rending that, with a hint of rapture, in the violence of the quest, in the despair of one who walks in search of, seems to suddenly run up against the inner experience, the mystical ecstasy. The artist decided to be the question, and artistic manifestation becomes this audacity, art would not propose answers but rather return us to a realm of profound mystery, for it is built on interrogation, after all, ‘art does not teach by giving answers, but by expanding questions’.[14] John Cage said the same in different words, understanding the act of creating as something that ‘arises out of asking questions’.[15] Artistic expression is an echo chamber, the space of a secret energy inhabited by queries, arborescent thoughts, to quote Robert Desnos.[16]

Like a redemption recalled to us by Mallarmé, the space that emerges in the artistic quest is an interval in radical suspension, a void, the place where creation begins and forms arise. An idea well symbolised by Oteiza’s metaphysical boxes and the energetic distress of their emptiness, as it alludes to the artist’s need for ‘a spiritual site, by my side, empty, motionless, distant, hard […] bare, Protestant […] intractable and transcendental’.[17] A void that was neither vacuity, nor ‘an incitement to annihilation’,[18] but rather a lovely poem of silenced language, in a world clamouring for empty expanses, ‘receptive, sanctified, protective’ spaces.[19] It is from here that active knowledge must spring for, like a heartbeat, an irony perhaps built on the end, investigating the void would entail mentioning the possibility of fullness. A sacred space, not just a geometric shape or merely theoretical investigation of measurements or numbers, but an enclosure, house, shadow and refuge. A quiet place for concentration, a linear cromlech docked in the turbulent space of the world. A complex and elementary formal enclosure, a place of empty hours, that which speaks of what moves, but also of the mutely motionless. Fragility of meaning, journey towards knowing by way of questions, forward march through the gloom in multiple directions. Before the existence of artistic forms, the day was dark.

Metaphysics of images, opening up to a new world gives certain forms meaning, like a jubilant expansion, crystallised to become visible, constructed like a gathering of revelations that have escaped from the rational. Possibly, that act of going beyond the known, what surrounds the figure of the artist, that search for a truth which may reveal embers of the way of interrogation, could be understood from a common substratum, the archetypal as Jung termed it, those forms transformed from consciousness but shared in the common consciousness of artists in every era. This is what Pablo Palazuelo meant when, explaining the picture Yantra III (1984), included in this exhibition, he wrote about the interrelation of structure and energy, the attempt to represent an energy that was metaphysical, in the sense of a force-activating structure. It appears to be a reflection on figures of stirring inertia[20] which, having existed since time immemorial, the origin of being, nevertheless belong to the collective consciousness, ‘a figure of conception. Similar figures and diagrams appear in many different cultures, primarily those of eastern origin, but they are also found in the west, where hermetic philosophers passed them down until the eighteenth century. Therefore, yantras are not religious symbols of a particular faith, but archetypal figures of consciousness and the inheritance of all humankind.’

 

APPEARANCE AND APPARITION

Shut your eyes and see.

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

 

Frailty of meaning contemplating the constructions of Pablo Armesto (Schaffhausen, Switzerland, 1970), for—while one perceives temporal complexity, that time situated before one’s very eyes—the spatiotemporal dimensions overflow when we are plunged into them, like a sensible, clamouring precipitate the encounter between an active centre of matter and immaterial energy, the light and airy alongside the apparition of the mighty image. At this point we are reminded of the Duchampian dialogue between ‘appearance’ and ‘apparition’ in À l’infinitif (1966), investigating multidimensional geometry: ‘The emanating object is an apparition.’[21] Something Armesto shares with paintings like those of Alfonso Albacete (Antequera, 1950), as well as Hugo Fontela (Grado, Asturias, 1986), Teresa Salcedo (Huesca, 1952) and Salvador Victoria (Rubielos de Mora, Teruel, 1928–Alcalá de Henares, 1994), for if we know that energy and number govern the fates of the cosmos, to quote Claude Esteban, those aforementioned creations seem to inquire about the dimensions of space, a true reality which, once transformed, becomes a perceptive poetics, a brilliance, a state of consciousness: space is active form, leaving the mark of experience and dreams. Delving into the void, drawing in space, self-absorbed proposals launched incessantly into that space. Resonant inquiries that are etched on their works, raising questions which seem to be waiting for the images to be claimed by another imagination, doubts about representation or vain truth, from the apparent reduction of elements taken to the limits. Radical incitement to think, in their careers these artists have engaged in processes that attempt to solve ideas, insofar as those ideas frequently seemed to have been either revealed or deconstructed, tirelessly, after having analysed a vast field of possibilities, reflecting on barely perceptible changes. Expanded labour somewhere between interrogation and bewilderment, the sculpture of Mar Solís (Madrid, 1967), reflecting on the void or its limits, on forms and their frontiers, in the disquisition of the vast outer space and which, in the defiant act of raising so many questions, is elevated to the terrain of the metaphor and the symbolic. This place of the symbolic is also occupied by the sculptural conceptions of Adolfo Schlosser (Leitersdorf, Austria, 1939–Bustarviejo, Madrid, 2004), from a telluric look-about capable of positing the resting energy of forms, suspended drive, dynamic imagination poured into its transfiguration where the authority of the gaze prevails, a tense and solemn individuality.

And, having come to the ‘Gardens and Deserts’, facing the landscape, beyond the shelter of the studio, the revelation: wait, see and step back to get some distance. For seeing is putting distance between oneself and the world in order to understand it, asking oneself how Friedrich’s figure, raptly contemplating a sea of clouds from a peak, managed it.[22]The monk’s question when faced with immensity, as Sean Scully recalled, thinking of Rothko.[23] It is the question asked before water, the cloud, the plain of the landscape or, ultimately, the inquisition before the enigma reflected in the waters of the mirror.[24] David Teniers’s landscapes—birds perfume the woods (Eluard)[25]—take us back to those Baudelairean ‘Correspondences’: ‘La nature […] vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté.’[26]

The asceticism of painting before the landscape, which Rosenblum[27] told us was the driving force of Abstract Expressionism and which, resolved in the painting of Carmen Laffón (Seville, 1934–2021), offers a close connection between the visual and the temporal. Nature in its changing appearance, almost imperceptible depending on the gaze, season or sunlight, was one of the pictorial themes that accompanied Fernando Zóbel (Manila, 1924–Rome, 1984) in his artistic life, although it leads us to an aporia: ‘In the end,’ he wrote, ‘almost everything turns into landscape.’[28] A lyricism returned in memory where the recollection of a feeling that struggles against time still lingers.[29]

The lovely faceting of the canvas by Esteban Vicente (Turégano, Segovia, 1903–New York, 2001) recalls a landscape, perhaps his inner country, a no-man’s-land world like the one Bonnefoy spoke of, L’Arrière-pays,[30] the interior country, the realm beyond, the intra-land or back-country.[31] Landscape painting or a stroll through landscapes conceived under the pretext of art history. In the end, the unrepentant longing for a hope to be reinvented in the secret space that constitutes the mystery of living, another realm of darkness situated between paucity and desire. This is no futile task. Behold, the awkward world of appearances we are bound to translate, showing it the reflection of the face of a presence, as the work of Ouka Leele (Madrid, 1957) seems to do. It is common knowledge that the near and the invisible are easily confused.

Having landed on the plain of the monochromatic desert, we are reminded of the endurance and autonomy of painting—and, by extension, the vindication of the painter’s craft—as the ultimate creative act, which is why it becomes a self-meditation on the exercise of painting, the means of representation become the object of representation,[32] allowing the monochrome to embrace conceptual and performance art, the minimal and the myriad processes of silence, the art-of-no frequented in the twentieth century, and other strange developments in the creation of our time. The paintings of Gerardo Rueda (Madrid, 1926–1996) and Antoni Tàpies (Barcelona, 1923–2012) are infused with silent, monochromatic ambition. But that seeming nothingness is actually what George Steiner would call Nichtung,[33]negation made an active, creative force. Before such a negation—the surface painted a single colour, barely altered by a few slight strokes in the manner of notes or textures—thought becomes a dream of flight, the eye is opened to the hidden present state of a possible truth and therefore continues to shine in that ardent reclusion. And it is in that state of painting, probing the patent, mysterious nature of the monochrome, where finiteness is revealed. Wonder is the first evocation of the search for thought, and without the mention of that finiteness there is no truth, one who contemplates a painting made of nothing is invited to accept the challenge of the ontological, the aforementioned solitary encounter with the work of art. The works of Nacho Criado (Mengíbar, Jaén, 1943–Madrid, 2010) run into the real, but that reality is reconstituted in strange experiences, new visual forms erected in the world. As if he felt that precisely that gameallowed him to say things which thought is incapable of saying. A clearing in the forest, illuminated and illuminating darkness, the painting of César Manrique (Arrecife, Lanzarote, 1919–Teguise, Lanzarote, 1992) is reminiscent of Hölderlin’s helle Nacht. So, new is the light on the earth.[34] Active imagination in the more mental, illusory inhabited spaces of Joan Ponç (Barcelona, 1927–Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, 1984) or the questions about twilit places posed by Yves Tanguy (Paris, 1900–Woodbury, Connecticut, 1955), whose La lumière de l’ombre (1939) seems to formally contrast with the work Blanco fin (1981), carved whites like strange desert plants, by Lucio Muñoz (Madrid, 1929–1998).

Between pain and ecstasy, there is an alter-word in creation, the word that returns the visible to the world. In the beginning was the Word, from silence sprang speech, from the immanent came the transcendent, after the first voice came the first sign (absence that calls), and later everything else. To elevate a sign was to conceive the world. The emptying of the artist representing the supernatural, the miracle—so it transpires in the beautiful video work Emergenceby Bill Viola (New York, 1951)—which ought not to hinder consciousness, from pain and ecstasy to knowledge and wisdom.[35] How lovely its encounter with the work (c.1559–1560) of Luis Vélez, the two separated by centuries, above the void rise the feet of one who woke from the slumber of death, oh sweet fortune, towards an incandescent sky as the sun sets over the plateau of Medina del Campo.[36]

It is a transition to another place, from the modest room of the miracle of Antonio López (Tomelloso, Ciudad Real, 1936), the light mistaken for the appearance of the solidification of an instant where meanings reverberate and well up, reminding us that anything can be transformed in the manner of the epiphany of another place, the manifested adhered to the non-manifested, the existent to the un-being and the visible confronted with the suture of the invisible. From Vélez who visited the Discalced Sisters[37] to the beautiful carving of Saint Teresa in ecstasy visited by an angel, ecstasy as an emptying and dis-appropriation of the self as a means of attaining knowledge symbolised in the ecstatic amorous union, achieving those spiritual nuptials, as the scriptures describe it. The angel also visits the Virgin and her Child, lovingly, reminding him of his fate, in the panel (c.1530) by Juan de Soreda.

In the end, we are perpetual exiles, between the land of the visible and the secretive (Borges said art was a miracle). Facing a representation that seems to have been shaken by subterranean blows, capsizing an anticipated beauty as if the image were moving over itself, as if sent into a state of shock, recalling Walter Benjamin. Thus, while contemplating these miracles, these timeless angels levitating round the world, I thought of the revelation of a sojourn of consciousness.

Joaquín Sorolla’s vanitas versus the works of Marina Abramović (Belgrade, 1946), Miquel Barceló (Felanitx, Mallorca, 1957), Martín Chirino (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1925–Madrid, 2019) or Manuel Franquelo (Madrid, 1990). Tombs on the banks of the Nile, incandescence of the landscape painted by Ernst Karl Eugen Körner (Stibbe, 1846–Berlin, 1927) or churchyards, like those painted by Juan Carlos Savater (San Sebastián, 1953), meet on this journey from that origin to the end, as if we had now arrived at the mysterious act of listening to the deep, reflecting from a place of dispossession, but let us not scorn the plenitude of one who knows loss aforehand. The head of Alexandra Ranner(Osterhofen, Germany, 1967) sings a joyous elegy, that Bach cantata, BWV 82, Ich habe genug (2005–2006): ‘It is enough / Now I wish this very day / To depart from here with joy / It is enough / Slumber, my weary eyes / Fall softly and close in contentment / O World, I will linger here no more / For indeed, I find nothing in you / Pleasing to my soul / Here I am resigned to misery / But there, there I shall feel / Sweet peace and quiet rest.’ Radiance of one who exercises the right to question, there is something elegiac about the mysterious intensity of representing the fading we will become. I was reminded of Nabokov: our short existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.[38]

 

 


Kazimir Malevich
Suprematist Composition: White on White
1918
Oil on canvas
79.4 x 79.4 cm
MoMA, New York

 

__________________________

ENDNOTES

[1] Maurice Blanchot, ‘Kierkegaard’s Journals’, in Faux Pas, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 20.

[2] Yves Bonnefoy, Together Still, trans. Hoyt Rogers with Mathilde Bonnefoy (London: Seagull Books, 2017), 89.

[3] Marguerite Yourcenar, L’œuvre au noir (1968).

[4] Jose-Augusto França, Millares or the White Victory (New York: Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1974).

[5] The expression is borrowed from Raúl Chávarri, ‘Gerardo Rueda’, Bellas Artes’71, V–VI (Madrid, 1971).

[6] Paul Klee, Paul Klee Notebooks, Volume 1: The Thinking Eye, ed. Jürg Spiller (London: Lund Humphries, 1969), 313.

[7] Cage recreated this garden in several series of visual and musical works: Where R = Ryoanji (1983–1985).

[8] Tony Smith, Tony Smith: Two Exhibitions of Sculpture (Commentary on ‘Night’) (Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum-University of Pennsylvania, The Institute of Contemporary Art, 1966–1967), n.p.

[9] Jean Genet, ‘The Studio of Alberto Giacometti’, in Fragments of the Artwork, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 44 and 67: ‘One of your statues in a room, and the room is a temple. […] What a respect for objects. Each one has its beauty because it is “alone” in existing, there is the irreplaceable in it.’

[10] Mark Rothko, Writings on Art (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2006), 125.

[11] Rothko, 65.

[12] I am obviously quoting Martin Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ [1950], in Off the Beaten Track, eds./trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[13] Blanchot, 33.

[14] Gustavo Torner, ‘Conversación’, in Escritos y conversaciones (Valencia: Pretextos, 1996), 104.

[15] John Cage, quoted in Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: Penguin, 2012), 59.

[16] ‘Nous sommes les pensées arborescentes qui fleurissent sur les chemins des jardins cérébraux.’ Robert Desnos, Corps et biens(Paris: Gallimard, 1930), 83.

[17] Jorge Oteiza, Propósito experimental 1956- 1957. Jorge Oteiza sculpture catalogue for the 4th São Paulo Biennial, in Escultura de Oteiza (Madrid: Gráficas Reunidas, 1957)

[18] Ángel Crespo, Jorge de Oteiza, humanista (Madrid: Alfaguara, Nueva Forma/Biblioteca de Arte, 1968).

[19] Miguel Pelay Orozco, Oteiza. Su vida, su obra, su pensamiento (Bilbao: La Gran Enciclopedia Vasca, 1978), 583. The quotation is almost exact.

[20] ‘’The continuous manipulation and visualisation of seemingly static forms of the structure stirs their inertia, at which point emerges the diagram endowed with a self-generating energy capable of alternatively transforming physical experience into psychological experience. Experimentation—manipulation, transforming composition—activates the image’s energy, and so the image becomes experience itself.’ Pablo Palazuelo and Kevin Power, Geometría y visión (Granada: Diputación de Granada, 1995).

[21] I am referring to the eponymous work by Marcel Duchamp: À l’Infinitif (La Boîte Blanche), 1966–1967. See Jean Clair, L’œuvre de Marcel Duchamp (Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne-Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, 1977), cat. no. 170, 140. Marcel Duchamp, Duchamp du signe (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), 131. The word ‘apparition’ is underlined. English quotation in Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 139.

[22] Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, 1817.

[23] Caspar David Friedrich, Mönch am Meer, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1809–1810.

[24] Alfonso de la Torre, ‘La representación del agua en el arte contemporáneo (El océano del alma)’, in H20. Izotz, Ur, Lurrin-Sólido, líquido, gaseoso (San Sebastián: Kutxa, 2008), 17.

[25] ‘The birds perfume the woods. The impetus of the silent tree that stands up to the earth.’ André Breton and Paul Éluard, Dictionnaire Abrégé du Surréalisme (Paris: Galerie des Beaux Arts, 1938).

[26] Charles Baudelaire, ‘Correspondances’, in Fleurs du mal (1857–1868).

[27] Robert Rosenblum, ‘The Abstract Sublime’, ARTnews 59, no. 10, II (New York, 1961), 38–41.

[28] Note written beside the painting Academia XXV (1972, 72-51).

[29] This paragraph: Vicente Aguilera Cerni, ‘Una perspectiva de la pintura española’, Civiltà delle macchine, year XII, no. 4, XI-XII (Rome, 1964).

[30] Yves Bonnefoy, L’Arrière-pays (Paris: Mercure de France, 2001).

[31] In this book, Bonnefoy recalls the Italian translation of L’Arrière-pays: ‘[…] d’Italie, de ceux pour qui “ arrière-pays ” se dit “ introterra ” ou “ retroterra ”?’, 162.

[32] A reflection borrowed from Arthur C. Danto.

[33] George Steiner, Heidegger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 115.

[34] Quoted from a Spanish edition of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry, specifically ‘13. Der frühling. La primavera’, in Poemas de la locura(Mexico City: UAEMEX, 2016).

[35] Quoted almost verbatim from Lola Josa, Estudio al Cántico espiritual (Barcelona: Lumen, 2021), 93.

[36] ‘This board was originally part of a now dismantled altarpiece that was commissioned from Luis Vélez on 21 March 1559 by Alejo de Medina, Regidor or Mayor of Medina del Campo, for the Chapel of the Descent in the Church of San Miguel of that town.’ www.coleccionbbva.com.

[37] ‘Documented in Medina del Campo (Valladolid), from 1518 to 1575, the year of his death, Vélez created a number of paintings in the town, some of them for the San José Convent of the Discalced Carmelites, founded by St Teresa of Ávila in 1567.’ www.coleccionbbva.com.

[38] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: Vintage, 1989), 19.