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

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