A Winter Day at the Met

When the Devil is due
He’ll come to collect
Won’t matter
What you do
No tears or regrets.
He comes just for you.
It’s time my dear.
He’s here
just for you
He’s come to collect
his due.

Mae West sang this to me in a dream – a “Lost Generation” torch song. I woke in my dark morning room not knowing where I was. How very strange one’s mind can be – Dec. 2012.

Woman and Musketeer. Pablo Picasso. Oil on Canvas, 1967. 393/8” x 317/8″ Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

There in the Met at the end of the Matisse exhibit that’s searching for “true painting,” we emerge into yet another spending kiosk of expensive knick knacks and tchochkes. On the left of this “tourist kill box” are some left over galleries sponsored by wealthy patrons. And on the wall as you enter on the right is a late Picasso. A small blue and black painting of one of his goateed Musketeers cradling the breast of a young nude beauty in his left hand, and in his right, he offers a ring or a flower or a hybrid of the two. In this painting you can see life playing through his brush strokes and palette, the depth of his ideas of painting’s history and the complexity of his relationship with Art. He was having fun with his brush, circling and scrubbing into the drawing. The Musketeer’s curly hair, the beauty’s curly hair, the spaces curling between them, the sky curled around her head, the curl of the promise of fidelity, the rounded ring with unfolding petals, the curl of her toes, the curl of the shaded brushwork on her lavender thigh. And after Matisse’s show of revealed working secrets documented with pompously framed reproductions, I kept thinking of his arabesque, the line that denotes life and love for that Master. In Picasso’s hands this line had become something more, especially in his last years; something that could form and broaden one’s vision before it came time to pay the bad man. Even the quick curling line of her belly button hints at the reality of flesh, the contour around that line thickens the being before us. It is an abstraction, seen and unseen at once, a plush visual understanding of volume, shade, hue and value coming through the theoretical schematics of Modernism. This line has a deeper history and a more complicated relationship to other Masters – Velazquez, Goya, Rubens. There is nothing finer, nothing more real for me to see at this time. I stood with this painting for a while, and when I was ready, I left without a look through the rest of the gallery. I didn’t want to see anything else for the moment.

Later in the cold white gallery at the back of the Met, I sat in front of a wall of contemporary work. On the left a Terry Winters, the middle a Pat Steir, then a Julian Lethbridge, and finally on the right, a Susan Rothenberg. All handsome works, all exemplary of this time. Yet I couldn’t feel anything for these abstractions. I looked for quite a while sitting on the bench opposite, searching for something in them, in me, something to see. But the works were all about the surfaces and the materials. The dreaded “skeins” of line work, the flows and drips both controlled and accidental, the clotted grounds of scumbles, scrapes, slathers and scratches – the Postmodern skrim, the overload of studied production. This is mannered Abstraction, self consciously referring to its making and the larger history of 20th century making. Surface, material, support, facture (a very popular word at the moment, and one I am now leaving behind.) And beneath these facades a narrative of Postmodern context – the biologic universal, the torrent of life, the forest of regret and the found abject object. These half finished stories wait for us to fill in the blank surfaces with our own experiences right their on the ever-assertive grounds of Postmodern knowing. These surfaces don’t move us, they are there as a backdrop for something else – for the life in front of them, not the life within them. I so want to engage, and I do, finally, with the Rothenberg. I see the thing she’s painted forging it’s way out of the leveling ground only to lose it again in the red sludge of the flattening surface. I want the thing as she does, but we are both denied. The ground submerges all of it. Susan can not let it be, can not see it through the beautiful surface. She is of our time, and I respect her effort.

“Woman With a Towel” Edgar Degas. 1894-1898. Pastel on cream-colored wove paper. 373/4” x 30.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

So different than the room of Degas’ bathers – a dark gold light overhead, drawings lining the wall. Everything feels close, contained. The surfaces are filled with crosshatches and heavy pastels. The beautiful bathers emerge through the lens and then find a thicker reality in Degas’ line, the flesh formed with each stroke of color, the line tracing the reality in front of us. These visions are not mine, and I’m not supposed to fill in the blanks, there are none to choose. I am supposed to look, to see something that’s not me. I am there with Degas, experiencing an entropic moment, understanding that this drawing is both image and being at once, a hybrid of visual existence. This moment of temporal traversal becomes something deeper, something that connects this moment in front of this image, the reality of the image without my presence, and Degas himself to the Venetians with their languorous Venuses, to the bathing nymphs frescoed on Roman Villas, to the wading Nile Goddesses on a Pyramid wall. But here, as she dries, her wet auburn hair pulled round her shoulder, the line of her back, arm and towel forms a negative abstraction. It’s a perfection of pink, off white, red, blue and yellow, all process and work, and all of it a challenge picked up by a later de Kooning.

This drawing teaches us something about abstract things. They can and must form space from their being. These images push us to see that the surface, that the ground is no such thing. That the image/being exerts its life into the vision, the ground is formed not of itself but out of being. In order to see in this way it’s not context, never context. It’s being.

I left the Met pulling on my coat and heading down that steep set of stairs to the street. I don’t do it often, but I thought…”what the hell, I’ll splurge,” and climbed into a cab. I kept thinking about those tight circles in Picasso’s painting, the endless curls, the curving lines and the spaces formed out of those two people, those two silly faces, that strange warping of size, structure and time. It seemed visually compelling to me in ways that the contemporary abstractions could not. The cab eased down the avenue toward home. Later that afternoon as I looked out of my studio window I remembered the song in my dream – so vivid – sung to me by a face no less silly, temporal and real than the ones in Picasso’s Musketeer painting. Curls and curves, thighs and skies, rings and toes, all treated the same way with the fidelity of a circular visual promise. And there I was brush in one hand, rag in the other – a 21st Century anachronism circling back on the past. Picasso had come to collect his due.

1:39 AM – my black dogs barking…

Among the official legal documents of early 17th century Rome there’s an innocuous one filed by Caravaggio’s landlady complaining that he had broken a hole in the ceiling of his rented studio. Such a senseless act, letting the weather in like that. And like any sensible landlady she wanted to be paid for the damage, and just maybe, the courts might provide relief. But unfortunately for her, Michele had already buggered off south trying to avoid being rubbed out. She would never see that cash, so she’d just confiscate a few of the worthless things he left behind – a glass and a mirror among them. Of course we might understand why there was a hole in the ceiling from our vantage point. That dark box with the closed wooden shutters had to be filled with an overhead raking light – great for drama, fantastic for the glass and mirror he used to capture his directed beings, his composed images – great for forming flesh. M was after the thing, the image of reality as he saw it, and that hole in the ceiling was a way to challenge the prevailing Mannerist art of this age. And here as my dogs howl in the night I begin the usual litany of questions. What if we Postmoderns were to break a hole into the ceiling and let the light into the closed box? What if we were willing to paint things through the glass and the mirror, but never with them? What if we could be abstractionists without the strictures of Modernism, without the expectations of Postmodernism?

10 thoughts on “A Winter Day at the Met

  1. You lightened my evening with this wonderful text about art and the choice of these particular works, which seem so normal and common but you really managed to show them from a new perspective. It’s indeed the artist who is dictating the work and not the styles and art fashions him. That small piece about the hole in the ceiling of Carravagio is just marvellous. What a bold start into 2013 !

    Can we wait for a post on Matisse ?

  2. E – I’m of the opinion these days that the reality is the abstraction. That the “real” world exists as a myth, like tropical jungles untouched by humans or bigfoot. What is real? Is it what you see through your lens/screen or is it what you experience when you go to the mall, sleep with your partner or the pain you feel in your chest? How do we see beyond the lens/program world that is constantly swallowing up our perceptions of it? Even when we step out into ‘nature’ we come away with the photographed, photoshopped imagery of the experience, and even that has been recorded by lenses and programs circling above and through our media extensions. It’s like the scene in the silly movie Couples Retreat – upon arriving at a tropical vacation paradise one character emerges from the luxury transport boat, rum drink in hand, and says, “Shit, it looks like a screen saver!”
    The real world IS abstraction. There is no separation, no inside or outside.
    But still, as painters and abstractionists, we must THINK this through, we must challenge our own acceptances…
    When we finally do crack a hole in the ceiling what will we see in the illuminated room? That, to me, is the interesting painting.

  3. this is an interview with NASA researcher rich terille:

    Q. When did you first surmise that our reality could be a computer simulation?

    A. Unless you believe there’s something magical about consciousness— and I don’t, I believe it’s the product of a very sophisticated architecture within the human brain— then you have to assume that at some point it can be simulated by a computer, or in other words, replicated. There are two ways one might accomplish an artificial human brain in the future. One of them is to reverse-engineer it, but I think it would be far easier to evolve a circuit or architecture that could become conscious. Perhaps in the next ten to 30 years we’ll be able to incorporate artificial consciousness into our machines.

    Q. We’ll get there that fast?

    Right now the fastest NASA supercomputers are cranking away at about double the speed of the human brain. If you make a simple calculation using Moore’s Law, you’ll find that these supercomputers, inside of a decade, will have the ability to compute an entire human lifetime of 80 years—including every thought ever conceived during that lifetime—in the span of a month.

    Q. That’s depressing.

    Now brace yourself: In 30 years we expect that a PlayStation— they come out with a new PlayStation every six to eight years, so this would be a PlayStation 7— will be able to compute about 10,000 human lifetimes simultaneously in real time, or about a human lifetime in an hour.

    Q.There’s how many PlayStations worldwide?

    More than 100 million, certainly. So think of 100 million consoles, each one containing 10,000 humans. That means, by that time, conceptually, you could have more humans living in PlayStations than you have humans living on Earth today.

    Q.So there’s a possibility we’re living in a super advanced game in some bloodshot-eyed goober’s PlayStation right now?

    Exactly. The supposition here is how do you know it’s not 30 years in the future now and you’re not one of these simulations? Let me go back a step here. As scientists, we put physical processes into mathematical frameworks, or into an equation. The universe behaves in a very peculiar way because it follows mathematics. Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible.” The universe does not have to work that way. It does not have to be so easy to abbreviate that I can basically write down a few pages of equations that contain enough information to simulate it.

    The other interesting thing is that the natural world behaves exactly the same way as the environment of Grand Theft Auto IV. In the game, you can explore Liberty City seamlessly in phenomenal detail. I made a calculation of how big that city is, and it turns out it’s a million times larger than my PlayStation 3. You see exactly what you need to see of Liberty City when you need to see it, abbreviating the entire game universe into the console. The universe behaves in the exact same way. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they’re being observed. Many theorists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you explain this. One explanation is that we’re living within a simulation, seeing what we need to see when we need to see it.

    Q. Which would explain why there have been reports of scientists observing pixels in the tiniest of microscopic images.

    Right. The universe is also pixelated— in time, space, volume, and energy. There exists a fundamental unit that you cannot break down into anything smaller, which means the universe is made of a finite number of these units. This also means there are a finite number of things the universe can be; it’s not infinite, so it’s computable. And if it only behaves in a finite way when it’s being observed, then the question is: Is it being computed? Then there’s a mathematical parallel. If two things are mathematically equivalent, they’re the same. So the universe is mathematically equivalent to the simulation of the universe.

    Q.Do you play video games?

    I do, actually, and I’ve played The Sims before, but coming up with this theory was the result of a combination of several things. I’m a planetary scientist, so I think a lot about the future of technology and where it might lead us. I also do a lot of work in evolutionary computation and artificial intelligence, where I’m dealing with the nature of consciousness. Plus, I began thinking about religion, or what you believe about the universe if you’re an atheist, which means you have to believe there’s an alternative origin story independent of a creator. And we have a pretty good one: the Big Bang. But you also have to think about engineering and if a creator could exist in our current universe. And if so, what are the requirements of said creator? After thinking about it, I realized that a creator of a universe is capable of changing the laws of physics and sculpting whatever this universe is, which I can do in a computer simulation. In fact, I’ll maybe be able to do that soon with conscious beings.

    Q. Beings with whom you could interact?

    Maybe, or maybe I’d just let them go. They’d be living out their lives in an incredibly short amount of time. Maybe I could change the physical laws. I could make them live in places both hospitable and inhospitable. I could make it so that they’re completely alone—perhaps that’s a boundary condition for us, and explains why there are no aliens.

    Q. You seem really at peace with this concept. When I first heard about your theory I was incredibly bummed but, obviously, intrigued.

    I find great inspiration in it, and I’ll tell you why: It tells me that we’re at the threshold of being able to create a universe— a simulation— and that we in turn could be living inside a simulation, which could be in turn yet another simulation. And our simulated beings could also create simulations. What I find intriguing is, if there is a creator, and there will be a creator in the future and it will be us, this also means if there’s a creator for our world, here, it’s also us. This means we are both God and servants of God, and that we made it all. What I find inspiring is that, even if we are in a simulation or many orders of magnitude down in levels of simulation, somewhere along the line something escaped the primordial ooze to become us and to result in simulations that made us. And that’s cool.

    . . .

    at a certain point, both data and material are irreducible, and are likely one and the same. this possibly suggests there is no ‘outside’ to consciousness, or that we are not who we thought we were. perhaps once the world inevitably becomes so shot thru with data as to be indistinguishable from that in itself will we understand what’s before us, or better, what we’re enmeshed in. this would be a true leap in human awareness, an understanding of the syntactical structures of experience that abstraction (in the art historical sense) was only able to hint at, albeit in a most sophisticated form at its most influential moment.

  4. http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/Cool-Astronomy/2010/1025/Is-the-universe-a-big-hologram-This-device-could-find-out.

    Is the Universe a Big Hologram? This Device Could Find Out

    During the hunt for the predicted ripples in space-time — known as gravitational waves — physicists stumbled across a rather puzzling phenomenon. Last year, I reported about the findings of scientists using the GEO600 experiment in Germany. Although the hi-tech piece of kit hadn’t turned up evidence for the gravitational waves it was seeking, it did turn up a lot of noise.
    Before we can understand what this “noise” is, we need to understand how equipment designed to look for the space-time ripples caused by collisions between black holes and supernova explosions.

    Gravitational wave detectors are incredibly sensitive to the tiniest change in distance. For example, the GEO600 experiment can detect a fluctuation of an atomic radius over a distance from the Earth to the Sun. This is achieved by firing a laser down a 600 meter long tube where it is split, reflected and directed into an interferometer. The interferometer can detect the tiny phase shifts in the two beams of light predicted to occur should a gravitational wave pass through our local volume of space. This wave is theorized to slightly change the distance between physical objects. Should GEO600 detect a phase change, it could be indicative of a slight change in distance, thus the passage of a gravitational wave.

    While looking out for a gravitational wave signal, scientists at GEO600 noticed something bizarre. There was inexplicable static in the results they were gathering. After canceling out all artificial sources of the noise, they called in the help of Fermilab’s Craig Hogan to see if his expertise of the quantum world help shed light on this anomalous noise. His response was as baffling as it was mind-blowing. “It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” Hogan said.

    Come again?

    The signal being detected by GEO600 isn’t a noise source that’s been overlooked, Hogan believes GEO600 is seeing quantum fluctuations in the fabric of space-time itself. This is where things start to get a little freaky.

    According to Einstein’s view on the universe, space-time should be smooth and continuous. However, this view may need to be modified as space-time may be composed of quantum “points” if Hogan’s theory is correct. At its finest scale, we should be able to probe down the “Planck length” which measures 10-35 meters. But the GEO600 experiment detected noise at scales of less than 10-15 meters.

    As it turns out, Hogan thinks that noise at these scales are caused by a holographic projection from the horizon of our universe. A good analogy is to think about how an image becomes more and more blurry or pixelated the more you zoom in on it. The projection starts off at Planck scale lengths at the Universe’s event horizon, but its projection becomes blurry in our local space-time. This hypothesis comes out of black hole research where the information that falls into a black hole is “encoded” in the black hole’s event horizon. For the holographic universe to hold true, information must be encoded in the outermost reaches of the Universe and it is projected into our 3 dimensional world.

    But how can this hypothesis be tested? We need to boost the resolution of a gravitational wave detector-type of kit. Enter the “Holometer.”

    Currently under construction in Fermilab, the Holometer (meaning holographic interferometer) will delve deep into this quantum realm at smaller scales than the GEO600 experiment. If Hogan’s idea is correct, the Holometer should detect this quantum noise in the fabric of space-time, throwing our whole perception of the Universe into a spin.

  5. Nice piece, and nice comments and follow-ups as well. A few thoughts:

    “What if we could be abstractionists without the strictures of Modernism, without the expectations of Postmodernism?”

    I think this is starting to unfold right now. A lot of the work is going to look awkward and bad and ultimately be forgotten, but I see sparks here and there – I haven’t been this optimistic about painting in a long time. The thing that is going to be hard for people to part with is avant-gardism, which is an exhausted issue. But ironically, nothing interesting is going to happen unless we dump the idea that we’re on a historically derived mission – and I mean this both in terms of the modernist and post-modern camps.

    Re. the NASA scientist: It’s interesting to listen to someone working through the Kant-Hegel-Schopenhaer stuff through the prism of advanced technology. It still won’t answer the hard questions about existence and appearance vs. essence, but it does propose a different set of possible answers. I bet that guy loved the Matrix films.

    Re. drawing and painting, which is an issue I know you’ve been thinking about a lot of late: You should definitely go see the black and white Picasso show at the Guggenheim. With the color stripped out, you can see his greatest strength, but also his weakness – he’s a draughtsman at heart. Contrast this to his friend Matisse who was a colorist to the core, and had to listen to accusations of being decorative throughout his career.
    Toward the end of his life, Titian claimed to have struck a grand bargain between the disegno and the colorito – which shows that painters and devotees of painting have been aware of this split for a long time. Maybe at a strictly formal level, Titian’s bargain is something people should be mulling in their studios now.

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