Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 5: Contemplative: Marsden Hartley, Agnes Martin, Isamu Noguchi, Tobi Kahn

I. Noguchi, Garden Elements, 1962

I. Noguchi, 75 Core

Agnes Martin, Stars

Agnes Martin, Praise

Tobi Kahn, (title unknown)

Tobi Kahn, Yetzirah

Contemplative: Hartley, Agnes Martin, Isamu Noguchi, Tobi Kahn

The concept of contemplation has a long and embedded history and relationship with both spiritual quests and religious communities of all sorts and types. It has been associated especially with those ascetic and focused “fringe” groups within (or on the edges, as the case may be) of mainstream faith communities. The Essenes, a desert sect of Judaism, and the monastic traditions of both Buddhism and Christianity are major examples. Because a contemplative life and practice was an integral component of all they did, it is not coincidental that these types of intensely focused communities have produced some of the finest and more refined examples of the arts, both in technique and in product. Tibetan throat singing; Indian, Islamic and Christian illuminated miniatures, manuscripts and tantric drawings come readily to mind. Essentially they had focused, devoted time to spend on creation and execution of these expressions, whereas the majority of society would’ve been largely consumed by daily concerns; too much so to attain high development of a craft or art as the fringe communities would (such as manuscript illumination, practiced in both Christian and Islamic traditions). Illuminated manuscripts, specifically, were made to encourage one’s thoughts towards heavenly things, as well to explicate sometimes esoteric and difficult material in a disciplined and repeated manner, so as to push the faithfuls' contemplation higher towards God – a means of devotion. This type of contemplation of artwork has long been used to pull our thoughts and beings towards higher planes.
So, where does all this leave us, when approaching the early modern collection here at the Barnes Foundation? What (and who) here, has interest in contemplative work, quietly drawing our hearts and thoughts together towards a more focused consciousness? I believe the most contemplative of the early modern work has a strong primary directive within that strength: that of inwardly directed self-contemplation; through the use of two things: human depiction (portraits) and still-life. That is, through two techniques of more directly and thoroughly investigating those things around us (other people, and nature) – diving down into contemplating even the simplest things in our lives – we might both transcend ourselves and learn more of the Other (that is, that which is not us, or the “not-I”, as one Jungian analyst put it once); and also learn much more about ourselves.
I think Marsden Hartley’s work allows us to do both of these. His paintings here in G 16, a still-life in which we are regarding a vase and flower on a pedestal, and two Cubist-style paintings studying boat forms, are good examples (and beautiful) which approach a spiritual consciousness through various means of contemplative practice. For one, the most obvious perhaps, is the colors. Here we find soft, fleshy pinks; mauves; grays and blues which are all calming; peaceful, and reflective. These colors have no part in the negative connotations often surrounding so-called “pastels” (such as, weak; sentimental; pandering, fawning non-committal; etc.) Rather, they put that color type to a perfection of its use: calmness rather than sentimentality; a strongly purposeful bent towards peace, not weakness; a take-it-as-you-will attitude (which exudes an internal self-confidence and assuredness), rather than a fawning or ingratiating motive. In other words, it is Hartley’s use of these “pastel”-like colors, along with their leaning towards dark neutrals, which directs these pieces in a contemplative direction. There is then, a second prime formal reason for what I see as their bent towards contemplation: their texture. Hartley’s very brushwork here is contemplative – dedicated; devotional; repetitive; softly-reassuring; memorable: all having to do with elements and strengths of a contemplative practice. Through Hartley's technique, we too are drawn to contemplate each color fully; filling and finishing one color before moving concretely and decidedly into the next, just as Hartley did. Texture indeed, for Hartley, seems to have been an important component of his devotional study through these paintings. There is a third prime formal reason that accentuates the contemplative: their composition. Hartley has carefully observed; dissected; and arranged the elements of what is before him, for prime contemplation of both the individual pieces of the composition, and their interrelationships as a whole. For example, see how he has deftly tipped the tabletop up towards our inquiring eyes, as if to facilitate our contemplation of nature – captured and redefined. The boats he studied too, seem flayed apart for observation to an extent, much like the old Italian engravings of flayed men made to explain muscle pattern: here though, it is too teach us something about the interior nature of a man-made structure, and how through our reinterpretation of it through painting, we might also learn something about ourselves.
Back to our earlier thought of self-reflection, and reflection on the surrounding world: all Cubist work, it could be argued, addresses this curiosity and self-reflection formally: Picasso; Braque; Brancusi, and so on, each taking their particular direction and tack towards this method of Cubism and its relationship with the viewed world. All of them are involved in a systematic and intuitive breaking-down of a structure, and careful observation of that structure; rearranging the elements strategically so as to ask questions about both the world and ourselves. These questions at the time were shockingly new; and conversely a revelation for those who weren’t immediately scandalized by this new way of seeing and depicting. For someone like Picasso, though, it would be difficult to pick out a series of works here at the Foundation that is solidly interested in the contemplative.
How does Hartley differ? We can point back to the combination of those three formal elements which create a three-pronged key: color, texture and composition. Much Cubism could be pushed towards a purposeful type of contemplation, but Hartley seems to be actively engaged in pointing towards an easeful contemplation. In a way, we as viewers can receive a genuine sense of Hartley’s particular devotion to his own contemplative nature, through the direct avenue of his artistic expression. And that might be an important realization about the existence of contemplation in modern artwork, which uses a formal, early-modern means, rather than just traditional realistic representation: if we receive (or feel) the sense of a contemplative spirit, then the pieces are spiritually successful. One final point about this group of Hartleys that seems to point to contemplation: the “eye-spots” that one can find in all three paintings: small, bulls-eye-like shapes that are staring back at us, like abstracted eyes in a portrait. And like a well-made portrait, they inquire of us by their nature, at our intent; our beliefs; our connection with the larger world. They return our inquisitiveness back to us, and create a cycling-back process which will hopefully prolong our search. Much like eye-spots in nature (butterflies; snakes) we are possibly fooled, and thus pushed further into the contemplation of the risen question.
In the Hartleys we see dedication and repetition: two normal parts of a contemplative practice – be it prayer, art, music or otherwise. The texture, color and composition in these three paintings are all dedicated and repetitious. Repetition implies a certain level of dedication, so let’s address that for a bit. A mantra or chant, like a hammer, repeatedly pounds one’s will and mind flatter; more receptive and acquiescent to a pattern, like gold flattens against pressure. The more repetitious and persistent the devotion, the more thoroughly it is assimilated, and the more contemplative it becomes. There are often two additional parts to this aspect that are interesting: formula and obsession. An artist like Rousseau (as we can spy in the Scout Attacked by a Tiger) once he came upon a formula for making his fantastic gardens, which he’d never experienced outside of arboretums or conservatories, kept returning to those large, exaggerated leaves, trunks, stems and even fruit; they obviously were satisfying to him, and helped him accomplish what he was after. These forms became a way for Rousseau to enter into the internal contemplation of his fantasy worlds, in a systematic and devotional way, and produce the a physical representation of it. The stylizing formula became another tool, or device, towards transcendence in art-making, if you will. In a similar way, Hartley created a new group of forms; a new series of “visual chants” to contemplate his surroundings, and ultimately take him (and us) outside and beyond them.
If we look at another self-taught artist (and many of them have this characteristic) such as Jean-Baptiste Guiraud (here in G 18) who, once he came upon a formula which worked for him, repeated it over and over, often to a greater (particular) effect than a more traditionally-trained artist might have. Observe View of Bordeaux – a good portion of the painting is devotional; formulaic; and repetitive: Guiraud used the same forms over and over for the bird’s-eye view of the city rooftops. (And interestingly enough, the cathedrals and church-tops are the only things which break this repetitive pattern, reminding us in their own way of their original metaphorical purpose of pointing heaven-ward). So, as we can see, there is a fine line between contemplative and obsessive. In fact, some may call the practice of a monk or ascetic disciple obsessive: but it is a matter of perspective.
Though it may seem at first like a drastic jump, the work of Agnes Martin is one later modern artist who comes to mind as being solidly involved in an aesthetic mode of contemplation. And; her paintings and drawings may draw from some as much ire as would an obsessive person’s. The paintings and drawings she’s been making for nigh on seventy years are paragons of both spiritually-aware and reaching, and utterly contemplative compositions; they are a Zen framework for contemplation. Her layouts are the very definition of repetition, but there is an important distinction to make: the more persistently repetitive that a piece of artwork becomes (and this distinction really only works with the handmade artwork) the more insistent become the aberrations. That is, the more careful and deliberate Martin is, the more her human errors, slips and overall “happy accidents” (as some artists call them) – in the minutia of the art’s surface and composition – become. Therefore through the most intense, exacting and devoted contemplation, at the height of one’s practice and skill – the frailty and limited nature of our bodies and abilities become bracingly clear. And yet the result is serenely beautiful! Contemplation, when this devoted and revelatory, is a beautiful and admirable element of human existence. Her allusions to natural phenomena and elements only serve to point us more insistently towards contemplating the transcendent in the everyday world: again, those things closest to us; under our very feet and noses.
Nature, though, need not be revealed only through near-obsessive repetition, or titillating titles. Where minimalist-leaning artists use machine-age type creation to divest their world of chaos (preparing or making space for contemplation), Zen-focused art moves towards an embrace of chaos – a certain lack-of-control – to take hold of an existing space for contemplation. Isamu Noguchi is one who comes to mind, in his careful distillation and consideration, and re-focusing of natural shapes, forms, textures and activity, to open up anew the relationship between the space for contemplation already within ourselves, and those corresponding spaces in nature (which we in the current age often repeatedly miss and overlook). Through these simplified, nuanced alterations of natural things, Noguchi is really a sculptor of not just stone and wood, but of our minds and our perceptions. We are therefore again, as we are by Hartley, pointed towards the same contemplation as the artist has been investigating through his artistic practice and creation. It is not coincidental that one often goes to a garden to recreate, or “re-create”.
Lipsey is quoted as calling Noguchi a “gardener of the soul” – and we turn now more fully to the concept of a deliberate space created for contemplation. The Barnes itself – and indeed, the core ideal of any school or museum – is as a space of contemplation, of intellectual revelation and discovery. It takes certain artists though, like Hartley, who were chosen and arranged for us by Barnes, to really push us towards a spiritually contemplative space. In this way, the garden for Noguchi was a space in which contemplation was more easily fostered, and accessible. Traditionally, spaces like cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, temples and other holy places were places meant – and created for – contemplative practice. With the contemporary lack of familiarity with traditional contemplative spaces, modernity opened up the definition of contemplative space to include more utilitarian and secular definitions: pools; gardens; galleries and museums have all become to many, places of an almost holy contemplation. Thus it is only natural that artistic material would readily be utilized towards more powerfully creating these contemplative relationships that are meant to be accentuated in these spaces. This idea has morphed gradually into artists being interested in drawing the art towards equality with the space; that is, the space becomes (is) the art. Richard Turrell, who makes light-filled environments, manipulates the light as a material, in a manner like Earth artists manipulated the soil and stuff to create earth-works (Robert Smithson is an oft-cited example). There is also Robert Irwin, whose pieces have almost become so numinous and ephemeral as to nearly disappear into non-existence – so flat and acquiescent do they become to the tranquility of Irwin’s mind (he uses scrim fabric and light to delineate and influence interior space and light). Olafur Eliasson is yet another artist who works with light as a material, using motifs of natural forms and phenomena such as eclipses and clouds, to evoke contemplation of the grandeur and mystery of these elemental features. With each of these three artists, space is either the primary medium used as the contemplative tool, or space is a primary way the concept of the piece is contemplated. That is, the concept is absorbed through contemplation of (or on) the space rather than something that might be in it.
Drawing together the last two primary ideas we’ve talked about – space and repetition (or formula), is the work of Tobi Kahn, who also throws a generous dose of mystery into the mix. Kahn is a contemporary artist of Jewish background, who draws upon that tradition heavily for inspiration and framework. Kahn’s work exhibits several characteristics which are indicative of artistic contemplation of the spiritual type (some of which we’ve already noticed in Hartley and others): insistent texture; clearly-defined and conclusive dealings with individual colors; a very real sense of time (devotion) and age (wisdom) through the carefully- layered application of paint. All this creates an almost carved and excavated surface, suggesting an ancient contemplation of (and on) the ages. Not only this, but Kahn plays on our more intellectual contemplation by titling these paintings mysteriously, such as Yetzirah, and Ahlom. The titles definitely allude to Hebraic words, but essentially they are made-up names; as much artifice as the painting itself. Yet, the deed is done once we’ve heard them; the mystery has been playfully and insistently placed within our sight and our hearts (our minds even) and we thus find ourselves contemplating our own existence and our world despite ourselves. And isn’t this what the best artwork does – sneak up behind us; or come right up to us, and change us, despite our constant stumbling and misunderstandings – despite ourselves?

For Hartley images, visit the Foundation, or enter his name at


Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 4: Formless: Alo Altripp, Ray Yoshida, Rachel Whiteread

Ray Yoshida, Unh!

Ray Yoshida, (title unknown)

Rachel Whiteread, One Hundred Spaces

Rachel Whiteread, Ghost

Formless: Alo Altripp, Ray Yoshida, Rachel Whiteread

The idea of formlessness may at first glance not be an evidently spiritual or an artistic one: for instance, how can that which has no form be important in forming an idea of the activity of the spiritual in art? And isn’t what we call “formalism” in artistic production by necessity an expression of one’s ideas and spirit made by “forming” or molding through the means of artifice? All these are true, so perhaps all this is simply a misunderstanding. The answer could be considered the flipside: art – and the spiritual in art specifically – is crucial to, and intimately involved in, bringing to the formless, a form. That is, all art does it to an extent by its nature, but spiritually-driven art does it by intention. In other words, artists try to form a mold around that which is unknown, to thereby better understand and visualize the lesser known, less intellectualized, more intuited parts of the universe; both inwardly (nucleus) and outwardly (cosmos). It functions almost as the opposite of casting a mold: artists begin with the seemingly non-existent, not simply the object at hand. As we mentioned before, specifically about nuclear science and imagination, art and science have both long taken us deeply into the microscopic worlds which before were unknown in tangible reality; art more through pure imagination, and science through technology (though, those two roles are now more often than not interchangeable and overlapping). The idea of the cosmos, or the universe, more easily imagined and grasped since it is simply an extrapolation from what is seen easily, has been an arena in which art and science have dwelled even longer. Think of the ancient Greeks pairing up their mythological stories with the star maps of the skies, to form what we still know as constellations. The mythology was not necessary for knowing, even as it is not now, but it pulled their (and our) imaginations up into a formless place, and gave it a form in our psyches. In a nutshell, art is the mold in which the invisible is cast. After the form has been created by artists though, is there anything left? And what of that ineffable content,”there-ness” or spirit which can never fully be imparted, or impacted? Does anything signify its former presence, though it is changed in appearance? What about those artworks which deal more directly with the mold, or the craft, as it were, rather than the cast, or spirit/idea? This image of casting a mold will be increasingly important to our discussion, as we continue.
Firstly, a few words on the concept’s spiritual history. (A disclaimer: I was steeped in the Christian tradition, so Christian metaphors spring most readily to my mind; if anyone has something to contribute on “formless” from another tradition, I’d love to entertain it). For one, it is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition that God is a spirit, i.e. formless. The earth and creation, in fact, found its form through Jehovah; formerly, “the earth was formless and void”. In the very first verses of Genesis, the cosmology of Judaism, it says, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2, KJV). And in most basic cosmologies, there is one or more omnipotent force or being which enacted the creation of earth and humankind. So there are many connections to be found between the idea of formlessness, and the pure act of creation. In fact, the idea behind the modern expression known as “conceptual” art is directly concerned with bringing a form (or a product) to the formless (or the idea). Artists, having grown tired of the tropes of traditional artistic expression, wanted to strip it away to nothing and begin again, in the guise of pure bodily movement (Vito Acconci) and active interaction with materials (medium=expression) (Yves Klein), or in extreme music and chance-based art of someone like John Cage. In some conceptual art, the idea stays an idea, never actually reaching materialization, but it still retains its definition as art, having an altering effect on our perception (Rirkrit Tiravanija.)
Let’s begin investigating the activity of the formless, by looking at Alo Altripp’s Kopf in Rot, in G 20. Though perhaps not immediately recognizable as an artwork dealing with formlessness, this painting rewards closer investigation and careful consideration within this context. Consider first the method of creation. The rudimentary, almost emotionally-tortured head is created using a technique similar to a children’s painting method known as “finger-painting”. And the concept behind “finger-painting” is that of the imitation of form by removal or negative manipulation of the material used; that is, the "picture" is made by "removing" the paint; through a kind of pushing and pulling with the hands, an excavating out of a form is achieved. How is this a significant characteristic? It is firstly a visual reminder of what we’re dealing with: namely, form is being created by removal of material. And this is not the 3-D removal of material from a sculpted piece; where a form is being “released”, in the traditional carving sense of sculpture. This is rather the 2-D, complete removal of the image-making matrix; i.e. paint, which in turn, creates an image. In other words, the negative becomes the positive, and the positive becomes the negative; they are turned on their head. This raises some interesting points: firstly, that a form is being created by removing form; and secondly, that the material being removed is being done so by an ultimately concrete form; that is the artist’s hand (or a tool connected to it). Overall, the point may be made that: the head seen here, speaking strictly and formally, does not really exist; i.e. is “formless” – at least, outside of the material - technically, only the edges created by the material "exist". Made viable to our eyes by the mold of the paint, this head is as close as one may come, to a visually realistic and readable “formless form”. As Sixten Ringbom mentions in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890—1985, there are two avenues to “formless” – one is to be completely emptied of anything immediately recognizable, and two, that which is of ultimately indistinct form, yet seemingly visible. He says,
“How formless is formless? To insist on absolute formlessness must in terms of visual representation, result in a complete void: the empty circle of the Oxherder series, the blank space of the tantric representation of pure conscience. At the beginning of this century, however, Zen and tantrism were virtually unknown to the general public; the direct and immediate impact of this radical iconoclasm on abstract art was to be felt only decades later. There is also a looser interpretation of the word formless that does not entail an absolute absence of form but merely the absence of physical shape. This is something altogether different from the arid emptiness that results from a strict application of the concept. It offers a virtually limitless freedom in the choice of line, shape, and color as long as the artist sees to it that representational forms are excluded” (136).
For a contrast in the idea of formlessness, let's continue our discussion with a second Altripp painting, now in G 23, called Plant-like. These two paintings seem to address each of Ringbom's distinctions, though neither fully: the first is closest to the first definition, and this painting is more close to the second definition (that is, without distinct form, but seemingly visible). Instead of suggesting a more stalwart and frozen formlessness like the first Altripp, which is more of an archaeological casting along the lines of petrified wood, where the original material has slowly seeped out and been replaced with a stony mineral deposit, taking on the original's form, this second Altripp moves towards an amoebic state, that is formlessness through indistinctness. This is a shape which seemingly shifts; changes; morphs continuously, so that no definite form may be given it. Any time an attempt is made to define it, it shifts again. So, though Altripp has recorded it here as it came to him, in this painting, by its very look and nature, we know it kept moving afterwards - much like a scene frozen in a photograph did not stop after the photographer shot the scene: it has an ever changing form; the photographic print being a shell of one of its states, like a snake shedding its skin, and moving on with a renewed form. In one way, this formlessness emphasizes itself as being a spiritual "record", or memory, more than the "archaeological-type", which Kopf in Rot is: here in Plant-like, even the mold is gone; there is not even a record of this permutation having existed: it is a pure impression, such as Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant’s "thought-form" paintings, from their theosophical book, Thought-Forces (1905), which purported to visualize the presence of emotional forces or auras. A present-day artist who alludes to this reality is Mary Baumeister, a German who was active in the United States during the 1960s. She said in an interview, “…as a child I saw around every living being a colorful moving aura (even around so-called dead things like stones), so when I saw Art, paintings of reality, I missed the color field. Later, when my visionary childhood vanished away through schooling and teaching, when I had to learn the reduced interpretation of the world, I refused” (WACC, 2, 2009, p. 6). Many would unequivocally acknowledge their existence, as auras and the like, but no one would dare suggest that this exact impression could be found again, in this way and none other... in this way, this painting is truly "formless".
Let’s look at some further examples of the formless; in contemporary expression this time. One artist who has dealt almost exclusively with the possibilities of the “formless” finding form is Rachel Whiteread. Whiteread was a member of the YBA group (Young British Artists) which emerged in the mid-1990s as the “bad kids” of British art. (Other members include Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Tracey Emin, etc.). She first came to international recognition with her large casts of domestic and unassuming spaces, including Ghost, and House. Her project we’ll be looking at, One Hundred Spaces, is a grid of colored-resin casts of the full-sized spaces between chair legs, a series of descendants to the Bruce Nauman piece in our reading. Much of what constitutes the concept of formlessness in Whiteread’s work deals with memory, and marks. Memory, in the sense that the plaster, concrete and resin, numbly (and dumbly) fill the cast space with a visually metaphorical congealing of the accumulation of memories that have to do with a particular space, such as Ghost, or House, where the cast has much to do with an embodiment of what was; the metaphysical made physical. By “filling” out the shell with a continuous and tactile material, our memories and social consciousness have become a shape of what we were, or what they were: our individual and collective memories and perceptions and biases have been given a medium. In the sense of marks, the memory becomes a repeated sensation, as in One Hundred Spaces. It is more of a memorial, or record of our direct interaction with an object (form) in the guise of a chair, rather than the accumulation of memories, congealing to a massive form, such as in Ghost or House. (That is, a focus on individuals making a whole, as opposed to focusing on a whole made up of individuals - the same idea, approached from different sides). All of this is action towards finding something, or being able to recall something, for which there are little or no physical remains. Memories are like this – they may have even a small physical remnant, but even this is still a shell, containing nothing form-full of that which it signifies, or even participated in. The only thing we have is, in a true sense, “formless”. While still with Whiteread, one final point we should make about formlessness, is that this really is the crux of what is meant by conceptual art: the form resulting after the art-making is the idea: form = idea; idea = form. When these are created equally, and when the craft (physical or mental) is skilled, conceptual art is a tautology: unassailable, supremely formless, and with a limited but incredibly focused power. Therefore, conceptual art, like all art involved with the idea of the formless, is in a very real sense, empty. To be brutally honest, there is nothing there, there; it is a shadow, a shell, a Ghost. But let us not forget that the most evanescent of things may stir us to our deepest core. Emptiness does not assume vacuity. What it does signify, however, is the most important thing we could hope to approach: the spirit of creation itself. And that spirit -- or muse, as the classicists called it -- as we are finding out, is formless.
The interface between humans and the natural world, and then between humans themselves, is what concerns the next artists we will look at in our investigation of formlessness in art. Those spaces, after all, are the factories where those memories are created, which we looked at previously, that deal with one aspect of formlessness.
Ray Yoshida was a Bay-area artist, using what might be called a culling, or a hunter/gatherer motive in much of his work. In one series of his works, he went through comic books and funny pages, pulling out images related to various themes, from things as seemingly random and banal as hairdos, or as ephemeral as expressed noises – the unphysical made physical: “unh!”, “ugh!”, and so on). Again, as in Altripp, his applied technique, how he went about affixing these scraps of comic representation to his working surface is what really feeds into our idea of the formless. To reiterate the importance of the cast-and-mold metaphor, Yoshida’s comic pieces work in this pattern perfectly. Notice the blank, negative spaces between the cut-out pieces on his collage. They are a continuous pattern of silence; a matrix which makes the colorful scraps sing, and gives them that much more poignancy and importance. In the same way that John Cage insisted that the spaces between notes are what make the notes themselves viable (after all, if the notes were all contiguous, there would be a drastically-lessened sense of pattern; it would be an aural [or in the case of Yoshida, visual] assault and maelstrom.) Like those old-fashioned optical illusion tricks, like "lovers about to kiss vs. a candlestick?", or "rabbit vs. old lady?", the negative and positive are ephemeral; both have potential meaning, and neither is more important than the other. In Yoshida, the positive is given aesthetic prevalence, but without the negative, as we'll see, the positive doesn't make sense. Even in the original comic strips or books themselves, spaces are necessary; an imperative.
A further instructive definition might be to include language, or alphabets themselves in this conversation: the distinguishing between letters is what creates legibility, and the spaces are what we learn as much as the baggage that the letters carry. Otherwise, the message is going to be largely garbled and incoherent. Not only that, but importance weighs in here: the finely-tuned spaces between the color/motion/sound give to the pieces a real grandeur, dignity and value: cut out much like a well-cut mat gives a fine artwork a life of its own, while remaining in the background. And the formless is like that: it is a demurring entity, which requires us to go after it; to seek it. Only the deliberate and determined will begin to form a sense of the formless. For what else can we slaves to form do, but be dogged in the pursuit of that formlessness, which in some way is anti-matter to us, but in many important ways, the most crucial thing? In a very ironically concrete way, Yoshida is “collecting evidence" of the formless; through an ephemeral medium (newsprint; comic books) that, despite its naïve nature, was always required to crudely but effectively evoke the formless (the “biff!” and “pow!” and “sigh!” known to devotees of comics): emotions we all recognize. All of these compiled pieces of evidence of the formless add up to a more extensive and more detailed mold – yet we still face the fact that no matter how beautiful, astounding, amazing or scandalous the mold – we still have to imagine and speculate on the cast (the form). This is the quandary of an artist interested in finding (or following, as we are always a few steps behind) the formless form. In various ways, we all “collect evidence” (unless we are a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, and then we collect anti-evidence) of the action of the formless; the spiritual in our lives: unexplained coincidences; chance meetings; which prove to be linchpins or watersheds, etc. Artists take these mysteries and make them into profundities and beauties. But for many of us, they remain simply mysterious phenomena.
Back to Nauman: one of the first thoughts upon considering this concrete cast, of his chair (space), might be at its mundanity. It is indeed a mysterious and captivating object, connected to an equally captivating idea and inspiration – but nonetheless, it is utterly mundane. Even the material underlines its mundanity and everydayness: concrete is ubiquitous to most of us. In fact, even the “unseen” mold – the chair – is known to have been steel – again, mundane. So, whence the mystery we feel? An important point about the investigating of the “formless” in art is how transcendancy is found in the everyday. In daily forms, patterns, habits and marks may be found the formless mystery and presence which surrounds, and is between them. To reiterate about Yoshida – the mundanity of the spaces (paper! - another utterly ubiquitous material) between the collected evidence of the formless (comic book cutouts) become indispensable to the discovery (recognition, really) of that formless. Before Nauman cast his chair bottom’s space – it was a non-entity. But because of Nauman's artifice, our perception has changed; we've become newly aware of the space between material, becoming material in its mimicking of our heightened perception. Forgive the crass analogy, but it is the first spike of realization in puberty, of the reality between the other gender's legs. In fact, it still is largely a non-entity – and that’s the point again: this form recorded the presence of what was formless – like petrified offal of a prehistoric worm or animal. One can hardly get more mundane than that – yet the thing which formed it – the intestines, etc. – is gone, forever…and therefore, the resulting object is a thing of mystery and wonder – despite its mundanity. Therefore within the mundanity of life itself the form-full evidence of the formless can be found most readily and convincingly. What is a cathedral, synagogue or other holy space, other than a place which “contains” a spirit; a community formed within another form – signifying formlessness. On their own, again, these spaces are merely material accumulations (brick; stone; wood; metal) in the form of a building. It is our perception of them, and of what fills them, and especially of what we bring to them, that make them special. This whole result though, remains largely formless. But it is scarcely different than an artist bringing to the creative process firstly a mental idea, and matching it with a physical material or materials, and attempting to get a sense of what form that formless sense may take. Some would also include, along with built chapels, etcetera, natural places; canyons; mountaintops; glades and forests. For many, (and for many millennia, to aboriginal groups) these certain spaces have had a grandeur and presence which is seemingly collected or gathered there, and is available to all who enter with an open heart - but it is still a formless concept - we encounter it spiritually, not formally. And that concept is what formless art is trying to grapple with.
We'll end with two brief glances at two very different artists, both of whom, however, approach the idea of formless in art-making. Agnes Martin is an artist who comes to mind, this time in the world of deliberately two-dimensional work, of a person “recording” the formless, through such recognizable and familiar means such as line, color, space (or spacing) and format. And yet, as we’ve seen, pure abstraction is an ideal only; all art, even Nauman, Martin, etc, have some resultant form to illustrate formlessness. If we dispersed with form all together, we’d be left in a vacuum. All art is by its nature form-based, however minimally because it is created by humans, wholly slaves to form. So inevitably, we continue to return to the paradox of formless form, or the form-of-the-formless. There are so many examples; we could go on for a long time: Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of clouds (Equivalents); genre paintings of historical events, etc. – all shells. But our artists in spotlight; Altripp, Yoshida, Nauman, Whiteread, etc, have taken the search for the formless several steps further: they have presumed to attempt a filling of the Space, or the vacuum, and accentuate its numinous nature by deliberate and intentional abstraction. Art, especially contemporary art, is audacious! And human audacity time and time again is what made the gods angry – but intrigued them deeply, nonetheless (think of their anger towards the audacity of Prometheus sharing the power of fire with humans). Think too, of someone like Duchamp, who in making his “erotic objects”, (casts of his lover’s vaginal cavity, etc.) was trying, however psychologically and possibly crassly, to come to some embodiment of an emotion; a passion; an obsession; a “formless” entity or state which they shared, and which he wanted to hold on to; to share; to analyze; to “bring out” into space. Shocking still, yes; but also touching in the unique way it conducts the investigation into the spiritual in art.

(To see cited Alo Altripp's work, please visit the Barnes Foundation!)


Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 3: Timeless: Paul Klee and Jeanne Jaffe

(a small portion of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France)

(Forgetful Angel, by Paul Klee)

(Spill of Memory, by Jeanne Jaffe)

(Study for Progeny, by Jeanne Jaffe)

Timeless: Klee and Jeanne Jaffe
Along with transcendence, timelessness is another prominent characteristic of spiritually-attuned artwork. Timelessness can be said to be spiritually-important because it is a characteristic of those things which have stood the “test of time”, and which impart a sense of a reality beyond our immediacy, and which, though no longer ours physically, can be touched spiritually. It is a reality as we will see, both integral to, and connected with, our present realities. Paul Klee said in his journal of 1916, “Everything passes, and what remains of former times, what remains of life, is the spiritual” (Lipsey, 188).
To begin defining timelessness, we can approach it beginning by making several points: for one, the artwork will have some distinguishing feature which is recognizable over eons; that is, any human seeing it, no matter what their time, place or context will recognize some aspect of its core purpose and value, as well as its transcendent properties. As an example, we might agree that the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, discovered in the mid-twentieth century, could readily be considered timeless – humans thousands of years removed from their inception needed little time to figure out several possible reasons for their existence. The drawings were perhaps done as a memorial; a sacrifice of thanks, or a shrine of sorts: we don't know for sure. The time lapsed has of course raised some puzzling questions, but the fluency; the purity; the spiritual freshness of the cave drawings quickly pulls us in; they readily tell us a story – though perhaps a bit foggily. And conversely, the spirituality of these cave drawings contributes to our recognizing them as timeless: the animals are raised up to an almost deified status; they are simultaneously prey and savior (or a symbol of salvation and continuing, enduring sustenance) for these ad hoc artists. A second aspect of timelessness that can be found in spiritually-attuned art is that, no matter when (or from where) it is approached, it casts backwards and forwards from that place equally well. It functions as both medium and prophet. That is, the visual language extant in the artwork has no specific time limits (this is a further distinction of the previous point). It also follows from our investigation of transcendancy last time, that an artwork which pushes towards transcendence will often have the additional element of timelessness. That is, it is sometimes transcendent through its timelessness. Admittedly, some artwork closer to our time than cave paintings may now seem timeless, or seem to be growing into a universal spirituality, but it still remains to be proven whether or not it will indeed read well over eons. For example, much of the abstract expressionist art of the 20th century (by painters such as Barnett Newman; Morris Louis; Ad Reinhardt, etc.) was ushered quickly into that general fold of "timeless" without the long-tempering which an expression like the Lascaux cave paintings have received. Though we could say, almost as a rule, that the less specific and more universal the subject, execution and symbolism becomes in an artwork, one may assume (to a point) that the artwork will endure a long time, its volume gaining in timeless power as it continues to age. An artwork by someone like Fragonard, e.g. may indeed tell us volumes about 18th century France; its ideals and mores, but is it spiritually awake in a timeless way – like a Cy Twombly painting seems to be? It remains to be seen – and that's the difficulty in finding some surety; time is required as the ultimate test of timelessness – at least in most cases.

However – there are certain artists who have such an incredibly innate ability to create artworks which speak timelessly, seemingly on the very day of their birthing: because of their intense peering into the depths and riches of the past, and the acuity with which they predict – Jules Verne-like – the format of the future, molding their artistic production between those two sides of the cast,. Such an artist, who is thus foremost in my mind when considering the spiritual possibilities of timelessness in art, is Paul Klee. We are fortunate to have several fine works by Klee in the Foundation's collection, including several late works. Klee is an artist who was not only gifted with an ability to tap into the timeless spiritual/sub-consciousness of art, but also was one who, upon reaching the last years of his life, shone intensely and columnar, like a candle about to go out. His late work is among his most pure, refined and timeless.

But before we delve more deeply and formally into Klee's work, let's firstly investigate just a bit more closely the spiritual importance of timelessness. A first point that I’d like to make, is that not all timelessness in art is directly spiritual or concerned with spiritual things, but all spiritually-attuned art has an element of timelessness. The reason I would propose is that, by nature of its spiritual acuity, which can be sensed visually, tactilely and psychologically, timelessness is assumed. In other words, temporality is the antithesis of spirituality. Essentially, that which seems to point most clearly into the future, by necessity points to and incorporates the qualities of something beyond our own time; something flowing parallel and just out of our full reach. Art like Klee's dips into that stream, but only sparingly – "like a glass darkly". And those art works which are timeless in a spiritual way are those "dark glasses" through which we are allowed to blink and occasionally glimpse, however dimly, our interaction with the timeless. Another word which may be of instructive use here, though used more in distinctly religious ways, is "eternal”. However I would caution that reverting from the use of "timeless" to "eternal", would move our concept further away from a directly human spirituality. That is, within the term “eternal”, time is a non-issue – and non-existent …however, within timelessness, time may be absentee and somewhat emasculated, but it still has a grasp on our human sensibilities. Eternity is an abstract dream and ideal, whereas timelessness is a spiritual concept rooted in humanness: we experience timelessness through our humanity. So for our purposes, we'll stick with the term timeless. However, the term “eternal” still does impart that same sense of a channel flowing just beyond our full reach, unattainable only because of our persnickety physical temporality, and our consciousness of being primarily in the here-and-now. Investigating the timeless in art though, can help us move – staying within our bodily vessels – beyond ourselves and our book-ended lives. It gives us the opportunity to tap into a history and a future which we otherwise would only be vaguely conscious of.

So, returning to Paul Klee. The first Klee we'll look at is Historic Ground (Historischer Boden) in Gallery 17, a wonderful piece that is strongly evocative of timelessness. At first glance, there are some parallels between this drawing and the Lascaux cave drawings mentioned earlier. This drawing is done in earth tones of sienna, rust and umber, and molded in modulating tones, both of which suggest an ancient set of glyphs, subtly carved into a long-lasting material, such as rock, and greatly weathered: there is a definite evocation of old-age. The shapes in the drawing too, are similar to Celtic runes; Sumerian script, or other ancient forms and tropes of communication, which have largely been lost to us, save for a few scraps of knowledge. Thus, there is a gradually-assumed timelessness here, part of which is untimely; that is, run out. We no longer understand this thing which was made for specific communication, therefore a deep and centralized universality – even though it is inscrutable to us – has come to the surface to replace its former specificity. So, though one form of understanding has long since leached out; a greater but more mysterious and enigmatic one has replaced it. This is the sense we receive from how Klee has formally arranged and composed the colors, tones and lines. But there is more: after the formal has been received as an invitation of sorts, we may go in further. However, I’d like to offer a word of clarification: on the one hand, a drawing like this, drawn in this way, by someone like Klee is an invitation; an invitation to speculate on where this drawing is from; where it's taking us; and how it is taking us there (i.e. what it's saying, and how it’s saying it). In other words, who are we in relation to it? The issue becomes, though that as a group, we would need to stop soon: for, the more the piece invites us in, the more personal it becomes. It would invite each of us in different direction, and into a different place by different means, depending on our personal spiritual inclinations and needs. So ironically, the more universal an artwork becomes, the more personal it becomes: essentially, each of us can use it in the way it most resonates with our inner spirit, and there is less chance of error. Because the piece can speak to nearly everyone (universality), it speaks a million languages at once. It is a different sort of spiritual translator, authentically translating to every viewer who interacts with it – the anti-Babel, a clarifying power, rather than an obscuring one. Such is this drawing by Klee.

Let's consider a second drawing by Klee, another late work done in the year before his death. This time it’s not in the form of a landscape, but is a human form. Near the end of his life, Klee drew a series of wonderful and sublime drawings of ghosts and angels, composed of loosely, looping, mostly unbroken lines, and a ghostly pallor. Many were done on a white background, but some were tinted lightly like this one, entitled This Bloom is about to Wither (Diese Blute Will Verwelken). This drawing evokes a different sense of timelessness than the previous drawing. In that one was the timelessness of a human's touch (more indirect; a “record” of sorts); this one conversely, is the directly personal, face-to-face confrontation with the timeless aspects reflected within each of us. There we saw a record; here we see a face. The rudimentary line work he used here serves to flatten the face, and accentuate its stylization. (Klee believed the common claim of his artwork being "childlike" was a misunderstanding) The face seems to be drawn of only two snaking lines, which intertwine gracefully to suggest a serene face, peering out at us in a peaceful and wise manner. It is a face serene on the edge of its temporality, its heavenly, otherworldly hues and modulations are harbingers of its imminent ushering into another place. In the transcendence of a flower the colors of eternity may be seen. What balances these flattening, planar lines of the facial contours is the gently applied pink, red and blue tones; in, over and around the lines, emphasizing them, not unlike the previous drawing. Additionally, the openness of the execution – the fluid, in-and-out of space between the lines – allows one's eyes to move fluidly through the composition. Therefore, though the sense of this figure is one of simple wisdom and serenity, there is a contrasting sense of immense readability; of being able to simultaneously know-all, and know-nothing through this mysterious figure. (And again, we come to a very Zen-like sense of the importance of emptying ourselves of temporality, and being open to the filling up and pouring in of a more eternal consciousness; that stream just beyond our reach and perception, but which so many of us know without a doubt, exists).

So what might this drawing be telling us of timelessness? In a way, this head, this figure symbolizes the acutely aware, and yet often stifled or misunderstood, child-like remnant within all of us, which approaches the world and all of time and knowledge with an immense capacity to absorb, but often limited ability to assimilate; (acceptance, without understanding as a prerequisite: in other words, our pre-rationalistic infancy). Here is our soul-child to be fostered and encouraged; our inner touchstone towards sensing timelessness and the continuing pulse of the universe. An artist we’ll look at very soon, Jeanne Jaffe, alludes to this in her artist statement: “…body parts, tools, toys and biological entities share edges and identities and echo early somatic experiences where the distinction between things are not yet clear, and where boundaries between identities are still fluid. These forms create an intuitive narrative that refers to visual, tactile, and auditory sensations which were felt before words could describe and thereby distance immediate experience.” Klee was perhaps sensing something similar when he was drawing this figure, and the others like it -- any more definitive of a line; any more concrete a tonality and the fresh, vital timelessness would be lessened and stifled. Though Klee was sensing the end, that end is one of the few truly universal things in the universe. Franklin famously said only death and taxes are givens in life. Not to mention, many cultures worldwide traditionally consider this “end” to be a sure beginning.

Continuing with the idea of sensing the receptivity and place for timelessness in ourselves and our lives, let's look at Klee's drawing Village among Rocks (Ort mit Felsen) in G 22, which returns to the landscape as a form, but is still very frontal and fairly flattened. This can be taken as a reminder that we are encountering a symbol; a drawing; artifice: we are not being convinced of a round, illusionary reality; but rather an obviously crafted surface. In this drawing, the timeless mark of a human’s sensory interaction with their world (as seen in the "glyph" drawing) merges with the timeless, personal, interactive gaze (of the "blossom" drawing) and creates a rich, layered investigation into direct human interaction and involvement in timeless processes and patterns. Pattern is one of the strongest ways that this idea is established in this drawing. Most obvious is the closely interlocked, tessellation-like pattern of flatly-rendered shapes which in turn read like rocks; boulders; houses; and succulent plant leaves. And this is the most striking aspect of the shape pattern: we are able to read them as nearly any of these shapes, and the drawing still makes sense regardless. The colors too, are again as in Historic Ground, in an enduring, ancient, and time-worn palette: steely blues and rosy quartz pinks; granite and slate hues – this landscape has existed for a long time; we're not sure how long, and the length of time is not really important. The next most striking feature is that the denizens of this landscape – i.e. the humans whom we might assume built and live in these blocky houses, and the shapes which suggest a hardy plant-life – are perfectly fitted into their environment. And this is a lesson about timelessness – that of reaching near-effortless harmony with one’s surroundings. Temporality almost assumes discomfort, unnaturalness and disharmony – normally time is an essential for true harmony. Here, with a wealth of time having passed, full harmony has been achieved and is being lived out, so that a peaceful homogeneity has been reached. And this is not the negative homogeneity of exclusion and uniformity; it is the positive homogeneity of harmony regardless of difference. See how effortlessly the shapes fit together – as if built out of each other’s materials – yet retain their uniqueness of contour, purpose, and station. Again in this drawing the two sentiments have combined: the wide-eyed innocence of human's near-entrance into the timelessness of the future (the “bloom” piece), and the universally-received language of timelessness which we sense has been written just for us (the “historic ground” piece), have joined in a harmonious whole, giving us a serene, holistic sense of being at peace with our surroundings for all time. Now, granted it is a somewhat Germanic and cerebral vision of heaven (eternity) but it has its own orderly peace about it, and conveys a true, definitive vision both of what timelessness may do for the spirit, and what it looks like in an artwork.

Now, Klee is admittedly a sometimes overly-philosophical and mental artist, his works occasionally tipping hard towards seriousness and gravity, from its usual balance with whimsy and dry humor. A contemporary Philadelphia artist, named Jeanne Jaffe, enters our investigation with timelessness wielding a refined and personalized humor, exemplified by her adoption of the cartoon shapeliness and pop art aesthetics informed by the culture of the late 20th century. Her art takes a fresh, feminine tack towards timelessness, drawing on some of the forms Louise Bourgeois debuted, with a similar wry use of sexual innuendo. In Jaffe’s work Spill of Memory (1998), the sculpted shapes move visually between suggestions of both organs and bones; that is between the breathing flesh of existence, and the bare evidence of existence. They are strung on cords; hanging in front of a wall, therefore suggesting the flatness of a 2-D work – again, along with the suggestion of a record or "log" within the grid-like formation – yet they are absolutely, undeniably modeled objects, existing roundly in space. There is thus the element of narrative – though sketchy, and of "memory" being recorded – albeit abstractly. Again, as with the Klee drawing, timelessness is approached first formally – the grid is colored in washed-out, consistently bleached hues, suggesting eons of aging and exposure to the harsh elements. And yet, the suggestion of organ – fleshly – form, suggests that there is still some life in these bony apparitions. Thus, like Klee's This Bloom is about to Wither, there is a pinky-hued hope glowing through the more clinical recording of life, through grids, charts and typologies; an art vs. science-type conversation. Klee's drawing lightly touches on timelessness, suggesting that the artist is gingerly accepting it, as it draws near. Jaffe's work on the other hand, uses signifiers that point metaphorically to not just the idea of or even experience of regeneration towards timelessness, but actually show us possible forms of that regeneration. Bones, after all, are where blood (the oxygen/life-carrier) is manufactured in the body. Also, bones grow from the inside out, ossifying into more solid structures as they enlarge. Additionally, organs themselves are not mere evidence of life, but are fully living tissues, crucial in the function of the body (and here it’s a communal body; of a culture or consciousness, collected in this net of memories). Jaffe pushes off of the evidence which Klee alluded to, and subsequently pumps some fresh, three-dimensional air into the forms of timelessness. Part of what’s being accomplished, of course, is that sculptural pieces are coming out into our space; instead of Klee's pieces, which are obviously humanly - manufactured (artifice), Jaffe's little bodily objects, because of their corporeal associations, and their occupation of our three -dimensional space, feel more "alive", or at least potentially alive to us. Thus, they carry within them the ability to convey the pumping of life's possibility; its regenerative possibilities, to us as viewers (and living, breathing beings ourselves). (Nonetheless, as said before, this aliveness and allusion to regenerated time – i.e. timelessness – is tempered by the grid-formation, and the subjection of the round forms to a "flat" display). Therefore, the resulting emotion is that of a record; but a record which beats with regenerative hope: a powerful function of memory’s power to revivify, relating to the piece’s title. Herein lie some contemporary possibilities of Jaffe's art to reinvigorate; to take up the baton of timelessness in Klee's artwork – in a feminine, constructive, and whimsically-wise way. Jaffe casts back in time deeply, but never loses her hopeful and deeply self-conscious moorings in the present (bodily) realities, and their ongoing possibilities.
For more images of Jeanne Jaffe's work, visit
And to see the original versions of the Klee's I mentioned, come visit the Barnes Foundation!

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