Current Journal:
Posted 31-August: 2012
by Bill Scheffel

Detail from Houses in Provence. Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art.


The only "C" I received in college was in an art history class - an irony, since even then I loved art history. I did not enjoy the history of being pummeled by slides or committing rote facts to memory, which accounted for my grade. I was interested in a history of phenomenology: why a landscape by Paul Cézanne altered me, why a Kandinsky watercolor made me want to paint - made me have to paint. At that time I worked as a janitor, bought books on Paul Klee and Goya and painted canvases horizontally - on top of my bed - in a thirty-five dollar a month room.

It was in this spirit that I took a field trip recently, gave myself the assignment of looking for vertical time in the paintings of the National Gallery of Art, here in Washington DC. I wanted to see which paintings would arrest my mind and find their way to my heart (or back to it again, if they had once done so). Which paintings would be soporific and which a splash of ice water? What path would my accidental wandering shape itself into, what would be its narrative?

I won't describe the specifics of my route - that I never could find room 13a, which supposedly housed Vermeer's A Lady Writing, for instance - but will share some of the paintings (and sculpture) I saw and some of the things I learned from studying them...


Alexander Calder


Rearing Stallion, c. 1928. Alexander Calder.

Early in his career as a sculptor, Alexander Calder realized he could "draw" three-dimensionally with wire. This incredible horse, approximately three feet in height, is alive and perfect. I had seen it the week before but had forgotten the memory card to my camera; the notion to photograph it was my initial reason for returning, the seed of this exploration.

Many know that "windhorse" was Chögyam Trungpa's translation of the Tibetan lungta, which he taught on extensively. Among other things, lungta equates to chi or prana. As we increase our unconditional confidence, inhabit vertical time, our life force or "wind" is also the vehicle we ride, a horse with its great power and great four-legged stability. Calder's hand must have known this, but apparently even the wire did, too.


Ercole Di' Roberti

Ginervra Bentivolgio, c.1474-1477. Ercole Di' Roberti.

Di' Roberti apparently drank copious volumes of red wine and died of apoplexy at age forty. His portrait of Ginervra, wife of Giovanna II Bentivoglio - the "Tyrant of Bologna" - shows a stern woman within an electrifying environment - in fact, she is an environment, abstracted through precision and geometry into mere profile, hair, clothing, space. We cannot enter her interior world; she has in turn become her "outer" world. Her white scarf as dominating and fascinating as her expression and the black that surrounds her is made, as black can sometimes become, into the most beautiful color of all, nuanced and limitless in depth.

All the representational paintings I was drawn to during my meander were like this one; painted with minimal symbolism, allegory and hagiography, paintings that concentrated themselves into an abstraction - by that I mean not dealing with a specific instance - of the elements of painting, the very sensations of the eye: form, color, space, energy.

Leonardo Da Vinci


Detail of Ginevra di' Benci, c. 1774-1478. Leonardo Da Vinci.

This is the National Gallery's signature painting, the only Leonardo Da Vinci on public view in the Americas. My detail shows most of the painting, which is almost square; apparently the bottom portion was damaged and cut away, removing the ladies hands. Genevra was painted the same year, give or take one or two, as the Roberti above. One art historian has pointed out the Leonardo's depiction of the curls in Ginevra's hair is equally if not more so a study in the waves and eddies of moving water.

Even seeing the painting here, in my website program as I write about it, arrests my mind. I have seen this painting in person many times - twice over the weekend - and I had a postcard of it on my wall for years. It has a reliable hair-stand-on-end presence when such things are almost never reliable (seeing Chögyam Trungpa was reliable this way!). How can the why of this be put into words?

Something that comes close is a talk James Hillman once gave that he called The Practice of Beauty. Hillman says that if we imagine "that beauty is permanently given" - i.e., a fundamental suchness or basic principle of nature and the universe, of everything - then certain "events," such as rituals, gatherings, celebrations and especially art, serve to reveal the "translucent intensity" of beauty. Hillman says:

If we use mythological language for this inherent radiance, we would speak of Aphrodite, the golden one, the smiling one, whose smile made the world pleasurable and lovely. She was more than an aesthetic joy; she was an epistemological necessity, they said. For without her, without Aphrodite, without Venus, all the other gods would remain hidden; they’d never appear to the senses.

Understood in this way, Aphrodite is the gate, she comes first (as drala) to meet us, if we become available to her. She is the arresting, melting and transforming element in art. If certain art forms "always" do this to us, it must be a "genetic" connection between ourselves as "participant" and the gods inhabiting the work of art, so that one arrives "home" in its presence (as in Dzogchen, when the "mother and son luminosity are united"?). Who can say or explain? In any case I agree with a quote attributed to Chekov: Art exists to prepare the heart for tenderness.


Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse


Detail from The Peppermint Bottle, 1893/95. Paul Cézanne.



Detail from Still Life with Apples on a Pink Tablecloth, 1924. Henri Matisse.


Cézanne freaks and art buffs would recognize my detail as his work from across the room, slightly less so perhaps the chunk from a Henri Matisse. An new world of viewing emerges when the digital camera is used to "copy" paintings and the computer screen used to boil them down into a detail ("an individual feature"): complete and fascinating paintings of Cézanne and Matisse in themselves - and vividly contrasting different personalities, with different color palettes, weights, even differing gravity.

Still lifes show us familier scenes; quotidian life, the "everydayness" that we seldom peer into. Once we do, the journey into vertical time may happen quickly, simply though looking. A lemon like the one Cézanne painted is never the shape of another lemon, and it has pores just like my skin; it feels one way when cold just out of the refrigerator and quite another when warm; it has a yellow indelibly lemon, like it walked out of the Garden of Eden that way.


The Peppermint Bottle, 1893/95. Paul Cézanne


Still Life with Apples on a Pink Tablecloth, 1924. Henri Matisse.


Frank Stella


Flin Flon IV, 1969. Frank Stella

Frank Stella's singular contributions as an artist began in the late 1950s, in which he developed further the modernist credo of creating painting as object rather than represention (of something else). He produced stark painting of parellel stripes, initially in monotone. Eventually he painted shaped canvases - chevrons, for instance - Stellashapedthat further emphasized the objectness of the painting (and blurred lines between painting and sculpture). Stella's challenge: could he produce paintings that were art and not merely decoration? Cezanne and Matisse worked with this same challenge as they brought tablecloth and wallpaper patterns into visual elements equalivent to pianos and people. By the late 60s, Stella was producing dazzling paintings (to my eye); large canvases in which color played deliciously on the flattened geometric space - appearances that had never appeared before. You can see below, in La scienza della fiacca, how Stellas' inventiveness as painter-sculture evolved with explosive imagination.

Artists since the Lascaux caves have engaged with the visual essence of the art of painting: how the eye sees, the wonder of visual phenomena, the sensation of energy in color and line. Their investigations and triumphs are analogous, say, to the mahahmudra tradition of Buddhist meditation in which the practitioner "examines" all phenomena - outer, inner, emotional and thought itself - with the eye of awareness. So called minimalist artists are seldom appreciated for working with a similar exacting inquiry into perception. During one period in the 1960s, the California artist Robert Irwin worked with the intensity of focus and solitude as that of any desert hermit or forest yogi. As he recalled to Lawrence Weschler (in the fabulous book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees):

I embarked on two years of painting those paintings, two lines on each canvas, and at the end of two years there were ten of them. So I painted a total of twenty lines over a period of two years of very, very intense activity. I mean, I essentially spent twelve and fifteen hours a day in the studio, seven days a week. In fact I had no separation between by studio life and my outside life. There was no separation between me and those paintings...

The challenge of the viewer, with any painting, is to enter "vertical" time and hang there a while, allowing the presence of the painting to reach ones... heart. Museums give us precious opportunities for such gazing, yet they present unique challenges: simply too much to ever see. It is hard to limit oneself and trust one's own intuition and taste, stopping where one really wants to and avoiding seeing too much, too quickly (that the National Gallery - a Smithsonian museum - is free leaves one without the urge to get one's monies worth).


Sacramento Mall Proposal #4, 1978. Frank Stella.



La scienza della fiacca, 1984. Frank Stella.


Barnett Newman


Detail from Stations of the Cross series, 1959-1966. Barnett Newman.

Just as I was reaching viewing fatigue I decided to ascend a staircase to a room called the National Gallery's Tower; after all, it featured a dedicated one-person show - the opportunity to be in a room with a single artist's work is rare - and though I was not necessary in the mood for more minimalist art I thought I should at least see what Barnett Newman's work, presented together, would be like. It took me a while to realize I had entered a world of "vertical time" so pronounced that is was also a satire of my title: over a dozen 5' x 6' canvases painted exclusively with vertical lines.

In this grotto of black, white and cream-colored paint I encountered sensuous and heartbreaking beauty, an attempt to show the wonder of a dragonfly wing or the taste to plum by bringing forth something equally elemental and varied. Only my photograph above, very close up, can serve to show the organic nature of these paintings - just a handful of paintings done over seven years (over six-months of time per painting) by an articulate Jewish man with a failing heart and a desire to ask the most basic questions through his painting. Questions about Jesus and the Holocaust. "Why have you forsaken me?" is the question Newman asked in his Station of the Cross series. Newman was still asking the question that nearly all artists and poets of his time had to ask themselves: What is the purpose of art after the Holocaust, in the face of the Holocaust? Newman's reduction of form and distraction shows, without making any conceptual arguments, that beauty continues to exist, especially when the machinery of business is slowed down so that it can become the gnosis of perception. In the Tower of the National Gallery one can sense the wings of drala populating the room.



Detail from Stations of the Cross series, 1959-1966. Barnett Newman.



National Gallery of Art, East Wing "Tower"; Barnett Newman exhibit.


Barnett Newman, 1966. (photograph from Department of
Image Collections, National Gallery of Art library).