Fra Angelico, The Virgin Annunciate, ca. late 1420s; tempera and gold on panel; 12 3/8 x 10 in.
When we are standing in front of a painting we see shape, line, color with its hues and values, but what do we feel? How much of that feeling, so much of which is inexpressible, comes from the formal qualities of the work? How much is pure mystery? With a painter such as Fra Angelico who was a Dominican friar, we expect a Christian spirituality to infuse his work.
Hans Memling, Portrait of an Old Man, ca. 1475; oil on wood, 10 3/8 x 7 5/8 in.
See a high resolution image of this painting at the Met's website.
But what of a secular portrait of an unnamed old man? I know that when I am looking at this small painting at the Met, I feel pierced by sadness, compassion, love. But how does one speak of the ineffable?
Tawaraya Sotatsu, Waterbird in Flight, 1630s; hanging scroll, ink on paper.
The human form does not have to be part of the image for me to feel deeply about a painting. Here, the fluid lines of calligraphy, the empty space, the duck lifting into that space, the sensitive attentiveness to each element gives rise to a boundless feeling in my chest. I don't think it possible to experience these beyond-the-formal emotions while looking at a reproduction. The actual physical presence of the object is essential.
Golu, The lover prepares to depart; Nurpur, Himachal Pradesh, ca. 1710-20; opaque watercolor on paper; 6 7/8 x 10 5/8 in.
So much of the pleasure I get from this painting is in its color and the perfect balance of color-shapes. But again, it is looking at this actual work (it was in an exhibition at the Met, "Wonder of the Age", which I wrote about here), seeing it intimately––each touch of the brush, each perfect detail––that leads to an experience of joy.
Samuel Palmer, Garden in Shoreham, 1820s or early 1830s; opaque watercolor and gouache,
11 x 8 1/2 in.
Landscape can also provide a connection with the visual world leading to a sense of the spiritual. The early paintings of Samuel Palmer, an associate of William Blake, have a quality of beauty that is more than itself; his way of seeing and simplifying the land around him is at times heart rending.
Carl Dahl, View of Larsen Square, near Copenhagen Harbor, ca. 1840, oil on canvas,
21 5/8 x 27 3/4 in.
Even a straightforward landscape, precise and clear, can evoke deep feelings. I love the Danish 19th century "Golden Age" painters. The quality of limpid light illuminating forms which recede rationally into space reminds me of when I painted in the landscape: I had a sense of openness coming from the chest, the heart, and flowing outwards.
John Peto, Help Yourself, 1881, 8 x 10 in.
What is it about a small still life painting of a common bag of peppermints that can elicit such poignancy? Is it the composition, the color, the forms emerging from darkness, the modest touch of the artist, the fact of the ordinariness of the subject?
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting: Black Rectangle, Blue Triangle, 1915, oil on canvas,
22 1/2 x 26 1/8 in.
Let us proceed out of the labyrinth of the earth into boundless space with numbers and color and let us husk the grain of consciousness.In reproduction, Malevich's work looks cool and rational, but in actuality they are dense and passionate paintings.
Anonymous, Untitled, 1997, Jaipur, India; gouache, watercolor, tempera on paper, 13 x 10 in.
It is interesting to think of the Malevich work in relation to this Tantric painting, a devotional image made by an anonymous artist based on a centuries old design; it is meant as an aid to meditation. So much abstract painting carries strong emotional resonance for me, moving beyond its formal elements.
Philip Guston, Light Bulb, oil on panel, 12 x 14 in. From a series of small paintings made from
Of course, having a spirit that is more than the accumulation of its formal parts––color, shape, paint––is what makes a good painting; it's basic, isn't it? And it's essentially mysterious as to how it occurs, and why we can disagree so much about our most loved works. The earlier abstract paintings of Philip Guston fit within a spiritual context with their dense accumulations of paint floating in "boundless space". But for me even his modest small representational paintings, here a single round light bulb, touch me deeply. Where does my sense of longing come from, or of vulnerability, of loss, when I look at this painting? I think of my own work, the various media I work in, and wonder if any carry within them a feeling beyond their formal parts; I hope they do, realizing that some may do so more than others. I also realize that infusing a work with spirit, with feeling, is not something I––or, I think, anyone––can do intentionally; it's something we long for, but it comes, mysteriously, through the working process.