Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time
Text By William H. Gass | Photographs by Michael Eastman
Editor’s Note: This project originated as a collaboration between longtime friends William Gass and Michael Eastman. With their permission, I published the material as an iPad-only e-book in 2012, garnering a small bit of attention from head-scratching literary folks who knew Gass as a print man through and through. In summer 2016, I removed the e-book from Apple’s bookstore and published it here on Medium. I’m pleased that many more readers, including several living abroad who emailed me to say they wished they could read it but could not, can now take it in.
1. The Concrete Seeks the Abstract — Where It Has Always Been Most at Home
It was an age of triumph. It was an age of shame. It was an age of anxiety. It was an age of blame. It was an age of rebirth and rebuilding, of wars rekindling. It was an age of mistrust and suspicion, of faith in decline. It was an age of innocence. It was an age of sin without redeemer or redemption. It was an age of insanity — craze succeeding craze. It was an age of returning normalcy. It was an age of accelerating change: things coming — in a wink — into being, things passing — with the swiftness of a sneeze — quite away. It was, in short, much like every other age.
And to the United States, especially through the major ports of entry, emigrants came — as they always have — but this time it was not just loads of losers, as Nativists were inclined to think, carrying cholera and other ailments, incapable of English, trained for unwanted tasks, all oddly named, clannish, pushy and in a panic, wanting our hometown jobs; this time they were the talented, the educated, the promising, the sophisticated — teachers and musicians, scholars and painters and scientists and logicians — displaced and ruined by bigotry’s persecutions and war’s rage — shortly to be dispersed over the entire country to teach at small Midwestern schools and, with their European sophistication, encounter an American innocence as carefully preserved as canned fruit. They went anywhere fate gave them a foothold — in the sandtan spacehead culture of Southern California to which they painfully endeavored to adapt their highbrow heritage (the Mann Brothers and Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Siegfried Kracauer); and it wasn’t German measles they brought this time, but positivism, socialism, nuclear physics, serial composition, the regimental teachings of the Bauhaus — any one of them by itself much worse, many thought, than any plague.
Suddenly to the shores of a nation where intellectual speculations were as exotic as sea urchins, ideas swam in disciplined schools; to a place where popularization was nearly everyone’s profession, came the severest critics of commercial culture, of capitalism’s use of the entertainment industries to deflect complaint, smother dissent, and fill the public's idle hours with puerile amusement. Our sciences were experimental, our native philosophies were practical and progressive, our crafts were infused with a Spartan pioneering spirit — populist and regional — our painting was local, idealistic, and muscular, our novels naively naturalistic and benignly social, our poetry celebrational if not jingoistic. Of course, foreign fashions had caught our eyes and captured our hearts from time to time. However, our best writers and composers had gone to Europe ages ago and hadn't come back. Many weren't Americans any more.
But during, and immediately after, the war, Vienna and Paris and London were emptied out onto our cities and into our universities, so that Rudolf Carnap held forth in Chicago, Max Beckmann tried to paint while teaching in St. Louis, Walter Gropius took over at Harvard, Richard Neutra was designing in LA, and, there were countless office towers by the firm of Mies, van der Rohe, and Mies, pushing aside buildings by Sullivan, Frank, Lloyd, and Wright. Banks bought the International Style and loaned it out at interest compounded by window number. Although our indigenous New Criticism formed a natural pair with Russia’s Formalists, rational linguistics collided noisily with our statistically driven semantics; existentialist angst, here, where we were only uneasy, was courted mostly by the soft heads of the academy. Where John Dewey had blurred every distinction he could find — between nature and experience, experience and mind, logic and life, thought and things — these differences were firmly redrawn by the Positivists and the early Wittgenstein, deeper and more darkly than before.
Painters in particular follow the money, go where the galleries are, where museums are important and patrons are plentiful. So New York soon had a scramble of Europeans they could call the New York School. As Jackson Pollock pointed out, the most significant painting during the last 100 years had been done in France, and now that those painters were relocating in New York, the most important painting would be done there. However, like André Breton, Surrealism's guru, each such painter was a clique unto himself, and still in mourning for Europe. Nevertheless, tendencies which had been showing themselves for many years, only to be interrupted everywhere by the War, began to take over, and in growing more evident began bumping into one another, exposing contradictions between artistic practices and intentions which resembled those of the post-war world itself.
For instance: science was triumphant; science had won the war; yet science was a monster, it would kill us all. A terrible economic depression had been overcome, and fine times were coming, though it had taken a worldwide potlatch — a cruel and wasteful war — to do it. Good had defeated evil, but this evil had turned out not to be ordinary like the Hun of the First World War, or the Jap of the Second. It was rather an evil everywhere like air, possibly in us all, and perhaps unconquerable in the long run. Positivism painted a rational progressive picture; Existentialism an emotional depressing one. Samuel Beckett was our best comedian. The peace we had achieved was already in pieces; perhaps peace was always that way: war by other means — economic, ideological, racist.
At least painters no longer had to work for the WPA and paint propaganda on the walls of post offices. At least some social pressures had eased, as had the Collective’s threat to the Individual. At least, the free flow of ideas could resume. Unless they had a Marxist source. Even former Nazis were useful against the Reds. Nazi art and Commie art was not only a lot alike, our own robust and sentimental mural style resembled them both, as Mexico’s also did. Tyranny worships the classical manner, admires sturdy and steady realism, aims at the heroic, values grandeur and size, distrusts anything it can’t understand, hates the subtle, loathes distortion, gloom, abstraction. The politics behind popular realism was revealed.
The Vienna Circle was a noose drawn not merely around the neck of metaphysics and theology. It denied any serious cognitive content to ethics, to art, to considerable realms of human feeling, and was as suspicious of subjectivity as the political Right was of the intentions of the Left. Die Welt ist alles was der Fall ist. This world might be mathematically described, and experimentally penetrated, but this world lacked direction, meaning, plans, or purposes. It was enough that it was, and was this way rather than that. The rest was empty conjecture and should enjoy our silence. The soul was another sort of senseless silliness. The values people held could be reported and the force of attitudes statistically estimated. Some points of view might allege a little instrumental justification, others were apparently grounded in self-interest and survival, but beyond such short-term support reason could not safely go. Communities were actually best built out of commonly shared prejudices and non-rational resolutions. And there you were.
Samuel Beckett’s tramps were right. There was nothing to say. But perhaps there was a way to say that?
It may have been an uneasy age, but for the critics it was a bull market — and the baloney came in every size of slice. Kandinsky needed to be explained, Malevich too, the Surrealists as well, and now there were these others. Moreover there was money in it — lots of money, and, of course, cultural power. The critics elbowed for position beneath the basket. Only in America could a pot-dribbling sot like Pollock be crowned “the greatest” in Life.
Suddenly, several solutions — entirely verbal — seemed to speed like a bit of juicy gossip through the galleries. Clement Greenberg wanted to speak of the “new art” as abstract; “non-objective” seemed accurate at least about a bit of it; but Harold Rosenberg offered “action painting” in place of both. Pollock isn’t an aesthete, he’s an animal. Still, the reply was, even if action painting really was essentially gestural, the paintings that spray-drip-and-spatter produced were essentially Abstract Expressionist in character. And their effect? Robert Rosenblum would bring back “the sublime” as an answer.
Critics wrote these words, “Abstract Expressionism,” as if a miracle of reconciliation had been realized all at once by the large wild canvases of a bunch of strangers to the argument: transplants like Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko, natives of New York itself such as Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, or visitors from that other America across the Hudson: because if Ezra Pound could hail from Hadley, Idaho, Jackson Pollock could certainly come from Cody, Wyoming; and if Gertrude Stein could be born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Franz Kline could emerge from Wilkes-Barre or Clyfford Still from North Dakota. North Dakota? Robert Motherwell even had an education.
The painters bridled at the description, at the notion of solution, but they knew they were pulling a cart full of concepts to the bank. The words were wrong because these paintings weren’t the tidy summation of anything, digests for seers; they weren’t images of a world stripped to its fighting weight, or rendered as essence or replaced by a sign. In the right light, I will cast a shadow, and in having a shadow I will also have an outline that can indicate my “abstract” presence, like a corpse that the police have walked and talked and chalked around and taken off to coronate. This silhouette from which my “shape” will be taken, like my elongating or retreating shade upon a sunny lawn, won’t be called “an abstraction,” however; it will merely be my silhouette or shadow.
The words were wrong because to abstract is to remove from the sensuous manifold every evidence of the presence of the senses, and to retain only the folds — relations represented with the simplest of signs: figures, numbers, axes, angles, lines — whereas the paintings so described contain color taken to its highest power. Color is not just king and queen but the whole court, the castle, and the countryside.
The words were wrong because no one could express what the paintings expressed. The pundits who were gathered for a roundtable by Life magazine to give the philistines a voice were not altogether wrong in thinking of Pollock as Jack the Dripper, because he was indeed discrediting — finally and fully — their comforting “representational” and “interpretive” prejudices about painting. Aldous Huxley called Cathedral (a Pollock with which the panel was confronted) wallpaper, though he was hardly the first to see the resemblance; Yale philosophy professor Theodore Meyer Greene thought it might make a nice tie; and Sir Leigh Ashton, of the old if not redoubtable Victoria and Albert, thought “it would make a most enchanting printed silk.”
What they wanted, and didn’t at that moment possess, despite the fact that the painting, of imposing verticality, was called Cathedral, was an explanation — oh, say, in Jungian terms — of its deeply stirring and universally relevant religious meaning. Rothko, by his own admission, had been infected by the mystical, but what that word implies is the “inexpressible.” Later he would get to do a chapel, which would prove how mystical he was, how inexpressible it is.
Since many of these paintings were at least powerful presences — that seemed to be undeniable — they got to be called totems, and Primitivism was also invoked and extolled in the face of the fears that the sciences had provoked. It was a dangerous direction, because what the Germans had done to the Jews was primitive and uncivilized — wasn’t it? — or diabolically organized and technologically proficient. The painters were prophets speaking not for God but for the greater unconscious, which had replaced God after his death. Or hadn’t God died in the ovens at Auschwitz after all? Maybe we’d better take a gander at Cathedral. Methinks it resembles smoke rising from a snowy field.
Let us simply look at what’s there in these paintings, or rather, more significantly, at what isn’t: gods, goddesses, angels, heroes, mythological beasts aren’t there; popes and kings aren’t there, plants or animals, fish or fowl, emblems or relics; roomy interiors aren’t there, nor are there streaks of candle, star, or firelight playing on faces or floors; there are no romantic streams or stately trees or noble peaks; the folds of gowns are gone, so are curious creatures like turtles, whales, or apes; not a pet, not a milady, nor a harnessed horse, not a brazen hussy carrying from the spring a great jar; not a nude — not so you’d know it — not a table heavy with pewter plates and boiled potato, ripe peach and roasted partridge, with silver utensils smiling at the glasses that are winking in the candlelight; not a sign of rich stuffs, silk or lace, beaded gowns, lawns alive with little flowers, or strewn with the slain of war, carcasses bloody from the hunt, women being raped; not a volley of shots or a dripping saber, exploits are no more; and gone are allegorical scenes, exotic locales, even dreams; pompous portraits are no longer painted; illustration has been lost like someone’s keys — Salomé happy with the Baptist’s head, Long John Silver at ease on his peg, documents in the moment of their signing, castles in Rheinish moonlight, dwarfs or other misshapen amusements of the court — allegory is over, local color is passé, as is pomp and circumstance, the language of flowers is no longer understood or spoken, motifs as massive as mountains have disappeared, icons have been out of work for four hundred years — what great painting depicts a motorcar? better yet, an elevator? train stations had only a month of popularity, boats upon a silver river lasted longer — even… even squares, even circles, even lean straight lines are here fat and wormy and contorted, and you can’t have a rectangle without ends and sides and careful corners. In short, man is absent, and with him, all his customary concerns.
Getting rid of the holy was a long and arduous process, and it would be opposed, slowed, it would be glacialized; but the movement in the direction of the secular was nevertheless steady and strong, accelerating when the Church was no longer a principal patron. Escaping the cold hold of humanity was more difficult because the world was always no more to man than an image in mankind’s eye; its ego was enormous, its presumption supreme; it thought itself the glory of creation when it was the pit of hell itself; the species wasn’t fruitful but it multiplied, so it could safely spend much of its time butchering its own kind; in the fifties the dead already reached around the moon, just from the slaughters of half our century, when painting turned its back on the frightful scene and decided not to be of use.
When the painters protested the labels given them, and said simply (though grandly) of their work, “It is,” some critics supposed them to be making use of existentialism’s soiled hankie, when the opposite was the case. They were creating Being. Often they felt that they, themselves, merely existed — and this sorry sad fact required another drink. They created things of absolutely no use, things of utter independence, wholly aloof, things on which humanity could hang no hat — though it would try. And whereof they had no wish to speak, they would keep silent. Against what they despised, speaking was pointless. They sought the Real of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” poem: that battered fragment of stone whose reality outshone its spectators’ dubious place in space:
Never will we know his legendary head
where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
his torso glows as if his look were set
above it in suspended globes that shed
a street’s light down. Otherwise the surging breast
would not thus blind you, nor through the soft turn
of the loins could you feel his smile pass easily
into the bright groins where the genitals yearned.
Otherwise this stone would not be so complete,
from its shoulder showering body into absent feet,
or seem as sleek and ripe as the pelt of a beast;
nor would that gaze be gathered up by every surface
to burst out blazing like a star, for there's no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
The paintings do not express alienation, disgust, distrust, but painting them did, including a rejection of the window-shaped canvas, its easel-propped placement, and the traditional brush. Logical empiricism (which logical positivism was sometimes called, clearly revealing philosophy’s similarly divided self) obeyed a parallel set of suspicions. It mistrusted ordinary language and sought to create an artificial one so perfect and complete it would contain mathematics as a demonstrated part. Ultimately machines would be built that could calculate (if not think) without bias or hidden intention or mental inadequacy. A proof has no ego and no glands. A proof does not mess with its premises, and the truths which enter it emerge clean and unscathed.
But empiricism, that movement’s other handle, feared the human heart so thoroughly, it would not trust its eye. It steadily replaced human experience with measuring machines, with gauges, with chemical indications, with traces on photographic plates. And by insisting that experiments be repeatable, the scientist hoped to counter one tendency to error with its opposite. Who will you believe, Uncle Billy’s bunion, or the mercury? As Plato had implied, we possess real knowledge when it is fruitfully quantified. The social sciences outdid themselves pretending to be rational in this sense.
Moreover, scientific knowledge — good in itself — was regularly adapted for human use in mostly evil or degrading commercial ways. How lovely number theory appeared to many: it had absolutely no application, and therefore could not be subverted. To err is human, to calculate divine.
Abstract Expressionism flew from a war like a bullet from a gun. Just when things were looking up, and when one then looked up, what one saw could not have been worse. Only those critics who were horrified by this painting understood what was going on. Randall Jarrell complained that “such painting — a specialized puritanical reduction of earlier painting — is presented to us as its final evolution, what it always ought to have been and therefore ‘really’ was.”
Gregory Battcock seems to me to have understood well enough Abstraction’s negative side:
It is an art style of extravagance: of waste, emptiness and exquisite sensual stimulation. It has little to do with anything of consequence and, amazingly enough, is all the more impressive because of its vacuity. Abstract Expressionism is viewed as an outrageous abdication, by the artist, of his traditional commitments… the mid-20th century New York Abstract Expressionist [has] turned his back upon the prevailing moral, social, cultural and ethical crises of a society hell-bent upon its own destruction.
An abdication of his traditional commitments… As if Cézanne’s mountains ever moved; as if Degas’ dancers improved Degas’ own digestion; as if Matisse weren’t pure hedonic heaven; as if Rembrandt van Rijn’s work modified a single burgher’s greed; as if Vermeer’s marvelous interiors made every Dutch girl tidy and a slave to the spinet; and though the institutions which surrounded them made mighty waves, what did Piero’s paintings do to improve the moral outlook of a single degenerate pope? Is it because a painted slipper or a peach or a fish’s silver sides still entreated, enticed the artist’s skill, so that Dürer’s rabbit amazes as a feat as well as a work of art? Well and good. It is a feat. And brings good luck. If rubbed.
Any sign that sends the mind to a serious contemplation of its referent not only risks but asks — nay, begs — to be forgotten. Even if, through its many details, an image must be repeatedly examined, the observer’s eye and mind are always passing through it to the real scene and its imagined meaning: the lovely androgynous angel on the wall of the corridor in San Marco, radiant and pure, bowing with respectfully crossed wrists to a young woman sitting on a simple stool that's been set upon an open corner porch of columns, her arms also brought reverently together, and offering to the angel (always to the viewer's left) an innocent and slightly downcast gaze, full of surmise; while behind the angel's flamboyant wings lies a lawn of flowers cut off by a simple wooden fence which fronts an almost bumptious bouquet of tree boughs blowing up behind it — they depict that unique moment of miracle and amazement when the tidings were brought to Mary — there is the lady, there is the angel, this is the announcement of the blessed conception of the Savior.
This way out. To the monks who once walked San Marco’s narrow halls and lived in such cells, these frescoes reminded, and sustained, and made vivid their belief. Unrepentant, I peer at the painting, a Fra Angelico, a wonder both of simplicity and artful skill, and admire everything about it but its message. No monk of these precincts would ever for a moment omit the moral here, because for him only a pure faith could have achieved this painting, yet to overlook the holiness of the event in order to contemplate the holiness of its rendering is a mistake now encouraged by the beauty of the work itself. This Fra Angelico would serve its purpose better, as many a Madonna does, in churches all over the world, by being a gaudy sentimentalized bit of kitsch.
There is a similar power in a Rothko, taking the breath of one’s own being away, for the soul has received a blow. Beauty is born of a form freely achieved and perfectly presented through the senses to everything sensitive and sensible in us. And intelligence in the disinterested service of knowledge, character at the behest of an improved community, and the experience of what is derisively called “aesthetic bliss” does suggest that mankind might be worthy of redemption, for by his efforts, his intelligence, through his imagination, some law has been discovered, some principle understood, some correctness respected, some duty done, some beauty has been achieved. But the suggestion is daily contradicted by the organized and techniquely proficient efforts of our persistently insensitive, our brutally murderous species.
For me, it is above all the late Rothkos whose profound reality impresses, heartens, then bewilders me, and puts once again — to whom? — to the void — Rilke’s desperate question:
Wasn’t it miraculous? O marvel, Angel, that we did it,
we, O great one, extol our achievements,
my breath is too short for such praise.
Because, after all, we haven’t failed to make use
of our sphere — ours — these generous spaces.
(How frightfully vast they must be,
not to have overflowed with our feelings
even after these thousands of years.)
But one tower was great, wasn’t it? O Angel, it was —
even compared to you? Chartres was great —
and music rose even higher, flew far beyond us.
Even a woman in love, alone at night by her window…
didn’t she reach your knee? *
But I wonder. In all seriousness, I wonder. Is the knee quite high enough? the thigh?
2. Photography Arrives Among the Arts, Having Been There All Its Life
Perhaps the photographer at first could do nothing else but serve the most concrete and particular character of things, because he was a servant of that Janus, technology, wasn’t he? New on the artistic scene, with dubious credentials, suspicious motives, and a future fueled by mass appeal; indeed he served an art that had to fight for its esteem; he was a snitch actually, who ratted on every one of the real world’s moments, told all — “Just the facts, ma’am” and caught them in a click the way a hen in a simple flutter seems to lay her eggs. One kind of camera was called the Speed Graphic. Moreover, pictures that any itchy finger took might be subsequently seen with an inattentive or unembarrassed ease that would be odd for the same circumstances were they being actually faced: snaps of bare ladies, dead bandits, or crumpled rows of Johnnie Rebs grasped in a single hurried half-bored glance. Photography was even accused of compelling painters to flee their customary countrysides, to resist the lures of nature or the juicy fruits of still life and the nude, in search of other subjects. Like Kurt Schwitters, if they still wished to paint lifescapes as painters always had, they did it on vacation, and otherwise kept quiet about it. Instead, they began to paint clouds as if clouds were all that were, or render the folds of gowns that no longer enclosed a torso; to brush in a foreground of faint streaks that could be called hills if they weren’t so out of place; and, by doing as Turner did, drown their scenes in waves of color, yellow their Christs, smudge, hieroglyph, or schematize as if they were mad at their models and sick of flowers and fish, since photographs were shades of gray like gray old men, and like gray old men could no longer compete with the ruddy and the radical and the brash.
Critics, similarly nudged, began to look back at the tradition in order to reassess what had been important to painting all along: the friskily brushed-in distant landscape, the flowing gowns, the architectural surround, the feathers of angels wings, mountain sides, bare or grassy ground, all those patches of the plainest paint that stood for skin, sky, foliage, decorated borders, a big red bed.
But what did the photograph take when its brief action was over? Have famous monuments disappeared because cameras have so often visited them to peel pictures like posters from their facades? Certain tribal peoples are said to believe that bits of their souls are stolen each time the camera looks at them, possibly because they once saw their features swimming in a mirror or a stream; but why had a piece of cactus leaf been thrown at me when I endeavored to celebrate a fetching row displayed like trout on a bright yellow blanket at the side of a Guanajuato street? Still, why shouldn’t they fear what Balzac feared? Because the novelist believed that “all physical bodies are made up entirely of layers of ghostlike images, an infinite number of leaflike skins laid one on top of the other,” as his friend the photographer Nadar reported, consequently “every time someone had his photograph taken, one of the spectral layers was removed from the body and transferred to the photograph.” It is pleasant to imagine the fate of movie stars, if the great writer was right, erased through every role and released like birds into the out-of- sight. ‘Film’ would then be the proper term for film.
It was once thought that eidolon flew through the air — though cumbersomely like a copter. Objects stamped their insignia upon the neighboring ether, which in turn relayed that imprint to the patch lying next, and then again and again on its wax seal way to us. We agree now it is light that objects send out as if they were beacons; light reflected from the margins of themselves that will run like water into any hole — pin-sized is sufficient; light molded to some semblance of its parental features, and revealing their presence, even their innermost moods, to the chemicals ready to receive this information. The camera was just a mechanical eye that did as we do, only performed it better, without any admixture of bias or fear, as alert as a sleepless ear to any sound beyond the pillow, and honest to a fault, impervious to threats and ignorant of shame. Such, in our innocence, we once believed, as though fidelity was possible for things, though lost to men. We called it “shooting.” No wonder even a cactus leaf had fears.
The camera transforms frequencies onto film, or it translates them into microdots: these simulacra sent by battery flash, the winter sun, or the radar gun, reverberations that mute things make in lieu of speech, though they can ring and rattle, too, or volley heat or odors from their skins; and the results are transcriptions concerning the character of surfaces — any place light may echo from, and so be overheard. And if these objects were always living things, we would say the camera tracked them, or that they cried out for attention, or that their prints were left at the scene like bird calls, mouse droppings, or tire treads. Else they should not be in this world. They would be one of the disappeared, of no account. I signal, therefore I am. That is the truth. Even an elementary particle can streak a photographic plate. I send therefore I can receive… scorn, devotion, blows, affection, use. The camera does not answer when the world waves, it merely records the greeting. It does not notice but it notes.
While words are duplicitous as grease, the scene the camera sees is fixed inside the boundaries it has set down, and these boundaries say: this is what of you I want, the piece of pie I choose, and nothing I care about exists beyond my lines for they are the true edges of the one flat world I’ve made, and it reaches no farther than the brim of Uncle Henry’s hat. Once painters placed their pigments principally on walls, and spread them where the wall went, or as far as the light reached, or their commission’s funds stretched. The canvas made them rich, but it also fixed bounds and altered attitudes. Within these precincts, the proscenium says, the play takes place, inside these lines that signal out of bounds the game goes on, and the painter's images are as confined within the painting's wooden walls as his pigments in their tubes. In each of these cases, scenes flow to their edges like water in a pond, but the photograph was taken from a continuum; it was removed the way the mind moves furniture from the showroom home to see how it will do, leaving everything behind but its image.
The painter may be looking at or remembering a model, his motif, but he makes the painting stroke by stroke from scratch, whereas the photographer has had to take what the scene gives him, and even now, when he can manipulate more freely than he ever could before, he still begins with what he's taken. The painter may wait on the weather, the photographer must. Therefore the painter's choice of time/place/pose is his own, the photographer's is serendipitous and required. The painter's eye may be sharp and he may be a hunter, but the photographer shoots.
Collage is a curious anomaly because its materials are literally cut out of a larger whole and pasted on emptiness until it is filled like stuff left in a field by a big wind. It is made, that is, of things taken out to be put in. Taking out is the photographer's basic business. Putting in is easier now, thanks to digital technology, and adjustments have always been made, but it is not from nothing that its something comes. For Rothko or Pollock or Still there is no mountain or model or plate of fruit, only the paint, its place, the hand of its maker and the mind of its master — gesture and Geist. Yet when color floods the canvas field, with no depicted object to restrain it — not a temple column or a garment's fringe — what right has the frame to haul it up short of wherever it was heading? Because color, though it lies still and unchanging as a bolt of cloth, lies that way of necessity not inclination; there is an onward ooze in it even when frozen as a floe, for floes float, as we know, and there is much below them — smothered mountain peaks, whole valley floors. “Well, as for depths,” the placid heavy hue replies, “the surfaces of things should be the first things seen.”
Actually, they are the only things seen, since that’s what seeing does. And they are consequently the first things ignored. The surfaces of things are unseen because we soon cease to see what we are accustomed to seeing, and since the surfaces of things rarely need to be seen, or desire to be seen, but hide behind their own grins like the Cheshire cat, we prove to be accommodating and comfortably dense. The sightless, who bump along on Braille, don’t care to count what their fingers read. That would be to be twice blind. We do not look upon the surfaces of things with any ease, either — to note the ring of greed like milk about their mouths — because their expressions may be obnoxious or threatening, worrisome and accusing, or seductive and beckoning, even all of these; therefore we close or avert or otherwise occupy our eyes.
We do not see our surroundings because they are seldom the focus of attention anyhow: we have our functions to perform, our paths of purpose to traverse; we have our preconceptions, our obsessions. But it is not simply our preoccupations that blindfold us. What surrounds us stays unseen, unfelt, unrealized, because nakedness is forbidden and embarrassing; because sensuality is for sissies; and because — make no mistake — it is on the surface and with the surface that we must make love, if even to the soul.
In short, we live through our living like pedestrians upon a dog-fouled pathway: we desire to dodge the dung while taking the least possible notice of it.
And when I write about the surface of things — of the paper-like crumple of a metal wall, or the track of a removed vine across some bricks, or the excitement in nicks or the gold of drying rice or the green of slime — what is this surface I am celebrating? What is surface itself?
We may begin with a few thoughts, but eventually surfaces will have to be felt to be believed; they will have to be perceived. As thin as the skin’s skin is, it is yet strong enough to support light: so let light puddle there, reflect, and run. While some surfaces, like the motorcar’s, are in motion, or seem soft as fog, and drift, others appear invincible and irremovable as space itself; some alter as we watch or walk by, some burst into being or just as abruptly disappear. And it is the relation of all these surfaces, surfaces of every kind — hard, yielding, marred, reflective, shining, secret, brimful, decaying, absurd — which constitute that supersurface which is the surface of the world to the human eye.
When we scratch a surface, however hard that surface — take the steel door of a loading dock, for example — perhaps ramming it with the end of a van or bumping it with an iron bar, the edge of a dolly, or the corner of a metal box; a surface which wasn’t a surface before will come to the surface in the scar. Eventually, a victim of repeated blows, the gouged plane of the plate will have a surface made violently of surfaces. Or suppose we put a spade in the earth, a softer medium; our deepest dig will heave to view only another surface, this one crumbly, perhaps, or with its clay compacted by the brutality of the blade.
We can dig and delve like the most industrious duck; we can poke and pry; we shall strike nothing but surface. Surfaces are unreal. They have only one side — their “out” side — and as far as our world is concerned, outside goes on forever.
The same thing can be said of the sound of words, for nothing can be said without some sound, and nothing can be written without some shape. Even a silent shape sounds in the head as though it were said. And shape and sound — the shape of the sound, and the sound of some shape — are surfaces. When we play with them, we are showing, we are insisting on, their material presence in the world.
Fated to be hung, as so many organs are, from a concealed bone, or fixed like a vein of gold in stone, or mired like muck beneath a meadow’s pond, much of the world is waiting to show its face, to come to light and greet the shovel or the surgeon’s knife, eager as a seed to push through the earth; and there are wrinkles which haven’t arrived but which will one day modify an infant’s gassy smile to resemble a granddad’s grin; rot is merely change a broken dollar yields; and there are sea deeps and dark skies, clothes folded in cedar chests, the leaves of books no reader’s reached, whose faces long for the touch of a solicitous eye, yearn to receive even a glance of surprise, or a gaze of appreciation, and thereby sign the register in some interested mind.
If we feel pointless and irrelevant, remember our considerate look can rescue a worn smile, even a red leaf, from neglect, our ear can give the drip of a tap some small respect, for recognizing is the point of breathing; and if we feel lonely, cooped up in our consciousness — a prisoner “inside” a mind — we can take cool comfort from the fact that to the outside we are bodies, simply surface, and have plenty of company. If you like, consciousness, either real or implied, is the other, missing side of surface.
Surfaces are where our sensory signals originate — signals which say “Here I am” — so surfaces define the sensible limits of things. Surfaces, however deceptive, are possessed by the body they bound; they present it to the world. Here is a wall, they say, here is a wall of windows, here is a gate, a walk. Surfaces are the sole source of show, of expression, of appearance. At the same time that they manage to conceal, they disclose. Surfaces, with a single spreading gesture, at once constitute, cover, and reveal.
The environment has a surface of sound and smell, of course, but for us surface is largely a visual and tactile element of things — their face. Sometimes we can even see the smell of surfaces, as their odors rise in smoke and steam. The character of any urban surface, for example, will depend very greatly upon the nature of the city’s light — Beijing’s coal smoke, St. Louis’ heavy moist haze, Pisa’s mist, L.A.’s smog, Cairo’s dust — and whether the city is damp or dry, snowed-in, fog-bound, ringed by mountains, a part of the plains, or adrift on the sea.
Sight is the safer sense. It lets us keep our distance, be discreet. We must come very near their sources, indeed, to smell the gum in another’s mouth, or feel fur, or taste a tear. Love demands just such a decrease in distance. In a kiss the eyes customarily close, while in an embrace the arms disarm themselves, our totals touch. We are more vulnerable only in our bath. When a city’s smells are foul, its streets unclean, its ponds weedy, its walls dingy, we are driven out of any closeness; we retreat, and cock our eyes at the advancing enemy as if ready to fire.
It is customary to praise the urban landscape by saying that it is more diverse, more electric, more demanding than its country cousin. This may be another case of urban obtuseness, but in knowing a city — its inhabitants and areas and objects — only the carnal sense of “know” applies. It is true that the city is essentially a source of sensation: it may have a soul in some sense, but it is surely a body; and if I am to know it properly I must unite its separate and many signals the way I see the word “city” and sound the word “city” as though they were one, just as I immediately remember, when I see a heap of ripe tomatoes, for example, the accelerating slickness of the tomato’s skin, the fruit’s acidulous sweet mush in my mouth, and color that color with my recollections.
The countryside was once thought more likely to be beautiful — peaceful, restful, a place for meditation, freer of people and therefore a refuge from human vice. But that was before we slummed it up, ran roads over it, and opened stores and stations, and collected wrecked cars. Now every lakeside draws trash like a slow drain.
I cannot pretend, when I see a sign, that I have seen only shapes — marks and lines — even if I am unfamiliar with the characters, let alone the language, for upon that surface will lie a sense so instantly available, the actual surface will be obscured. I know, when I see a charred ruin, that there’s been a fire. In that sense, causes are perceptible and “on the surface.” I know, when I see a taped or boarded storefront, that a business has failed. In that sense, effects are perceptible and “on the surface.” I see few things without the presence of their names, and with them, the customary context of these concepts. I can read abandonment in a broken door or shattered window, neglect in rust and rot, functions in forms, meanings of all kinds in every inch which are so immediately present on the surface of things as to be a part of their presence the way dishes set a table. So there is surface, and then there is what lies directly on that surface — a second-order surface, if you like, a glaze of meanings... meanings as there as things, yet invisible as mind.
One eye will see farther back along a line of causes, for example, than another. Sherlock Holmes saw the most distant and subtle significances of clues with the immediacy of perception, and we might, following Schopenhauer, compare that ability to see a cause in its effect with the insights of genius. The scientist whose eye is screwed to the microscope sees "on the surface" many things which the untrained observer's surface could never contain. The critic can see meanings miles below the line which leads to them. The dust in a deserted building gives the light its age, and that light lies upon the accumulated layers of pigeon shit already soft and weary from its passage through grime-darkened windows. There, on the unoccupied floor of the structure, guano and dirt and light, moisture and moss, combine to calendar its empty days.
"We live among surfaces," Emerson wrote, "and the true art of life is to skate well on them." The problem is that there is so much "on the surface," like a fine film of moisture, that we glide along quite effortlessly. Life slides toward its past unshaved by our blades. Sometimes we swaddle ourselves with so much significance we can no longer find our bodies in the bed. A prominent paradox concerning surfaces is that they tend to become depths.
To recover our sense of surface, the Russian Formalists recommended "defamiliarization," the re-creation of strangeness. Dadaists did much the same. It is the practice of reviving our experience of form and texture by altering the context in which we normally encounter the owners of these properties. What we need, of course, is an eye, a nose, a feel for the intrinsic. Since surfaces slip out of sight and disappear in the ever-present network of extrinsic relations and practical concerns, becoming nothing but a use, nothing but a name, we need to nail a stool to a ceiling, cover a teacup with fur, place a urinal in the open gallery of some art museum, take slivers from the deep insides of things and magnify them until they take on the appearance of outer spaces; we draw lines in the mind, we frame and bracket, or imagine ourselves the size of a thumb, big as Alice heading up the chimney, or transported to the body of a bug, a bird, the worm within the apple, sperm in its leap and wiggle toward the ultimate result of love.
The camera is our invaluable assistant in this campaign; it can capture only surface — surface which it removes and transforms in scale, quality, context, and nature — with an ease that is magically available to even the clumsiest click. The camera does not conceptualize. The blow it strikes is as blunt as a ball bat, though it was film that once bore the bruise. We can stare without embarrassment at the down-and-out, dawdle in alleys and doorways, poke the ends of our eyes in heaps of trash, look sideways at the sky, and lose sight of what we are seeing so as to see it for itself at last — freed from function and idea, its customary fellowship with other things; and, now naked, available as new material for metaphor, fresh interpretations, fond attentions.
With the aid of the camera we may find slime as lovely as anything we might want to serve to guests, or come upon ordinary objects in strange surroundings, see them from unusual angles, confronting them without preconceptions or prejudice, like the rich crust created by the pigeons, to mention their contributions again; or we might take renewed delight in a simple carpet of ajuga or the excited roll of grass, the warm resilient beauty of brick. We should not omit even one of the seven wonders of wood, or forget what a few shadows can do to alleviate concrete, or neglect the poet’s invocation to the sky, the “azure” of the French, or fail a snow soft as bed clothes, or avoid the frank sensuality of the sycamore, unpeeling itself before us like ripe fruit. And we shall surely encounter, in journeys we can make while standing almost still, the repeated emergence in unlikely places of the world’s eye — the symbol of the sun rising or the breaking of a shaft of light through heavy clouds — matching our wonder with its own.
The play of surface upon surface that the camera catches, of surrogate surfaces, vagrant scintillations, shades and shadows, reflections on pools and ponds, curious greetings, mysterious realms which may be found upon even the dusty hoods of cars, distortions and transformations of distance caught in the open palm of the near at hand: these overlays of light compose collages of sensuous inconsequence, like the phrase “sensuous inconsequence” itself, where such soft surfaces kiss. It is often as though a new stage were being set for those old antagonists, light and darkness, so we might witness objects becoming shadows without losing their substance, objects sending their similitudes into new compositions, objects doubling themselves without a mirror, objects rearranging themselves in the light of sudden palls. Then there are all those translucencies as well, vibrant as a violin, which throw inner scenes on outer walls, line the sidewalk with sky, and assemble metaphysically inharmonious elements — in compositions nevertheless melodious — which can include, in reflection or shadow, the shade of the ubiquitous author himself.
We know, of course, that the city has sections the way nature has modulations: parks and playgrounds, suburbs and slums, business districts and factories, markets and gardens, rail yards and roads; and that each has a set of surfaces characteristic of it, made of glass and steel, water and wood, concrete and grass. But in each area, too, and wherever they overlap or intermingle, elements are constantly arriving and departing, others are being tended and preserved, some have been viciously assaulted — beaten, burned, and raped — still others have been abandoned, not cast away but simply left like winos leave their bagged and swallowed bottles. In Cairo I have seen buildings that were falling down as they were being put up, buildings whose incompletion was complete.
With Goethe, I might be inclined to say that everything can be beautiful if looked at in the right way, had not a similar thought graced a popular song of almost that title and disgraced itself; so it is almost reassuring to realize how hard it is to find real beauty in the regimental streets of the well-to-do. Beauty and comfort do not readily combine. Comfort is like cream poured over the eye. The problem is not with the tidy, neat, and cared-for. It is rather that when money tries to buy beauty it tends to purchase a kind of courteous kitsch, and its rare daring is inevitably disastrous, achieving the curious, the odd, the cornball, or the quaint. At best, the enclaves of the well-off look like the layout of the old New Yorker, with its pages of errorless prose, clever ads, and fashionable fictions. Necessity and happenstance are often better architects and artists than artists and architects are. Nature works with patiently repeated small strokes to repair the damage we often call design, once we forbear and leave worse enough alone. Restoration is often desirable and, more than that, applaudable, but no repeal of the past is perfect, and the result often resembles the efforts of an actress to play the part of Jean Harlow or Marilyn Monroe.
American cities are almost as abandoned as occupied, not simply in certain blighted areas, although these are certainly, among the ignored, the most notable. Abandonment, however, is ubiquitous. Just as we leave behind loved ones, parts of our past, old debts, parts of ourselves, we litter the landscape: a small hutch here, a garage, a warehouse, a closed school, an emptied shop or silo, a cottage industry, a de-animaled barn. When elevators fail, the upper stories of tall buildings fall empty; a widow may begin to live in only one room of her house; half-finished buildings, like half-held hopes, are soon overtaken by the homeless, who help themselves to what is left; and alleyways and passages and porches and outside stairs and stubbled fields drift into idleness and obsolescence. Asphalt lots are reoccupied by weeds. Fences sag, posts rot, wires rust. It is the abandoned lots and streets and buildings that teach us the most and are often in their poverty most wealthy. It is better, they tell us, to fall into the hands of Nature than to remain in the hands of Man.
Just as the corpse has been a dangerous contaminant and dreadful
bother to almost all societies, so are the dead bricks and decomposing
boards of abandoned buildings. Often, like bodies sometimes, they are
cut up and scattered, blown up, burned, or even buried, fed to thieves
who steal their skins or their intestines, their cornices and colored glass
and decorated doorways, and dispose of them in the Sun Belt somewhere like the rest of cold old age. Many peoples leave their dead
in trees, or they offer them to the mercies of hyenas, vultures, sharks, or
other sorts of sweepers of the streets. Many, however, just walk away.
We leave the fields to weeds, the woods to their underbrush and fallen
trees. We motor from our cities more often than not, turn a cold shoulder,
banish all thought of docks and rail yards; and the face of the city
becomes pocked with little lifeless hollows, spaces that are sealed off
from sight and unavailable for any use. Then we speed by barn yards
and out buildings that are their own tombs. They live their death as if it
were another life, and nothing tells us more about a region than those
places so lost and impoverished they have pushed away even their own
Outcasts and pariahs, no more concern is felt for them, for the histories they had, the living that once went into them, than is felt for any faceless and forsaken rag of man or woman stretched out on a bench, huddled over a warming grate, or curled up under a bridge. These human beings live on themselves and grow thin from that diet. They live in the only interior they have as though that inside were their overcoat, and consequently we can see sometimes, as though through a flung-open door or raised window, their consciousness spill into the public world they are now so unaware of as they gesture at ghosts and declaim their pain for the balm of a passer-by's snicker. Eventually, they become simply the last layer of dirty clothes in the bundle, a mutter like the wind's, a nearly bodiless movement that's yet as far beyond futility as disconnected stoves their former fires.
The surfaces of spaces which have been abandoned, and which know only the touch of the tramp, the spray can of the vandal, the trash of the vagrant; where a cheap Tokay's sweetness lies shattered like the bottle, and the tin-can stove threatens to scorch the mattress that's been flung like a self into a corner; or where the calm insouciance of forgotten furniture can be encountered, or the eloquence, though hardly heard, of one shoe or a left-over word: they combine to create a Dorian Gray-like image of the city's soul or country-cousin's character: a landscape of spiritual self-loathing and suicidal hate.
Yes, these are the spaces where strange animals rest: machines left in the tombs like the retinues of the pharaohs. These are spaces where a bulb may still burn, the light as neglected as the darkness. These are spaces that return their boundaries to the physical world, and only the mice and cats come, the pigeons perch. This is where otherwise only dripping water moves, and mildew is time's measurement, rot rules, rust too, and decay becomes constructive because the orderly and equal ministrations of Nature, indifferent and patient, crack the plaster with beguiling lines where pipes poke forth and their shadows flash; they peel paint more seductively than underclothes; they subdue vulgar colors until they harmonize like the lyrics of a master — the raucous red of a discarded watermelon rind, for instance, reaching a pink more tantalizing than a tongue's tip, at least to some developed, though depraved, tastes. Here our metals curl like paper, and stones we had let fall — oh, anywhere — out of idleness, now stand above our better feelings to mark their burial place beneath cliché and faddish slogan.
The qualities that finally constitute the surfaces that define such spaces are so rich, so various, so intense, yet so subtle and delicate, that they rarely could be realized by any artist; and the most humble materials, the plainest places, left to the routine actions of Nature, achieve a kind of elevation in their downfall, a tubercular beauty in their final fever.
And they lay there, in plain view, waiting for the photographer to make them immortal. They weren’t in motion; they weren’t hidden away in exotic places; they didn’t charge by the hour to pose; they also weren’t charming, immediately attractive, stylish, shocking, or outrageous; they were ordinary, commonplace, banal, ubiquitous… and revolutionary.
A weed grew here. — Exempt from use,
Weeds turn no wheel, nor run;
Radiance pure or redolence
Some have, but this had none.
And yet heaven gave it leave to live And idle it in the sun. *
3. The Concrete Seeks the Abstract: Where it has always been most at home
Painting, poetry, music, slowly freed themselves from the tyranny of the referent, though there were, and still are, repeated attempts to become a loyal subject of the Subject once again, because a “purified” art is often envious of content’s continued success in popular culture, its importance in totalitarian countries, or with bourgeois critics. Fiction still writhes in the strangulating grip of a comforting though sensationalized realism, and the theatre pretends Godot got here, if only on a late train, and that his triune form is composed of class, sex, and race.
Michael Eastman’s astonishing photographs (and the examples here are only one aspect of his manifold art) are more than beautiful — a beauty before which we need only stand with hat in hand — they are demonstrations that the camera can do even more thoroughly what painters have done: penetrate to the heart of the aesthetic experience. It is now possible, if unpopular, to believe that painting never was about its so-called themes — the Annunciation, to take a genre I am particularly fond of and have earlier invoked — instead, such topics were simply its excuse. The church was the painter’s principal patron and that’s what the patron paid for. It wanted images that would draw the faithful to them and reward their eyes with sacred images while priests supplied the commentary. At least, the subject matter was deemed to be of transcendental importance, and there were painters who believed their brushes did depict the life, the face, the agonies of God.
And if paintings began to push margins to the fore — plates of fruits, vases of flowers, clothes with their jewels and folds, mountains and streams, punts or saloons — what exactly did these artful tributes say about them? That is an embarrassingly simple-minded question, for even Mark Rothko was concerned to keep in touch with content, even while he appeared to remove it: “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless..." If we questioned it, we should have no difficulty getting a clear and positive answer from Goya's Disasters of War. The answer would be that war is a wicked business and ought not be pursued. It brings out the worst in everybody, and will do its worst to anyone. For how long are we supposed to admire that information? Or Guernica’s message either — for its old news? One patient reply to this question might be that images are necessary to bring home the awful reality of war, something that our simple acceptance of condemnatory sentences does not do. Documents have no presentational immediacy. But are the drawings really gruesome enough for that? With regard to scapegoating, a few crucifixions try. Grünewald is frank. Yet he produces admiration, not a turn to the stomach.
If paintings are not about what they are alleged to be about, but are about something else, photographs are unevasive and say straightaway their aim and obligation — don’t they? Here is my sister, Eileen, she is beautiful but sad, and has uncombed hair. This news is supposed to be satisfying? August Sander’s solemn subjects, even when they are allowed to smile, hold on to their grins as they hold on to their hats in a wind, yet neither frozen stare nor painted laugh are really theirs — only their apprehensions. Sebastião Salgado’s workers, scoured by the desert, drenched in oil, surrounded by sulfurous smoke, are dramatized by a camera that speaks of its own work as much as theirs.
Sander wanted his subjects to project their fullest sense of themselves as persons, but most of all they cannot help reveal, in their role as detached proper nouns, what the verbs of their life have done to them, to their faces and their hands, whatever peeks from bonnet or sleeve or escapes the store-bought suit they have donned for the shoot — fingers that Sander uses to align his picture and center its interest the way Salgado seizes upon the repetition of tools or materials, lines of men, patches of smoke or haze, to organize the verbs of action that dominate his own. Sander’s farmers’ faces are a cliché: they are worn, wrinkled, sunken. Life has battered them, nevertheless it is a life they have led, therefore the wear they have received from work, whereas Eastman's images are of rusted, painted, scarred and pasted surfaces — certainly of nouns — but in the "done to" not in the "doer" role, in (what a name!) the accusative case.
Moreover, these surfaces were inflicted on these fences, walls, and windows, by humans who then abandoned them to nature like foundlings were on doorsteps, and wear an orphan’s record of awareness. Exposure to nature and urban life has scarred them; it is the artist who has made of them this beauty.
Look at the gloriously raucous #19. The base color is a vibrant red, probably painted on wood. Black lines have been sprayed on the red and if they mean something, we can’t determine what because white paint has been rollered over the graffiti with the clear intention of canceling it. There is some smearing as if a wind had suddenly whistled through the pigment. The result, when Eastman has finished framing it, is rich and powerfully exuberant. The beaked creature made by the line is now a bunch of bones beneath three cubes of melting sugar. One is free to imagine. The energy in the streaked red ground, those of the sweeping spray can, and the juicy blots of the roller, wrestle one another. The entire piece is like the sunrise for a fortunate day. One is free to imagine. And the difference between painting and photography has been appreciably narrowed.
If this photograph has a subject — crossed-out graffiti — it isn’t about such marks or their obliteration. I don’t believe it is about that terrifying topic, Nothing, either. I don’t believe it is about anything. It just is. Which is not enough for some people. A decoration? But of what? The wall? In any case, the paint, the scrawl, the wall don’t matter. They are now beyond the reach of admiration and have rotted their way out of wonderland. We are looking at a photograph. It just is. Which is not enough for some people.
Turn to #20, a powerful poster-like picture of many caged hands. This says something surely. A pre-Eastman moment made this ragged stump with its beseeching arms. Its original composition is a mystery. The palms resemble those that made their mark in caves. We could title it Guantánamo, though it wasn’t taken in Cuba, where Eastman has photographed so superbly. Who knows what kind of incarceration is meant? In any case it expresses the desperation of the detainee.
If the picture’s subject is imprisonment, and its expression a plea, then can we say its value lies in the generality of the situation and the genuineness of the emotion? It’s not difficult to become upset about penning people up. The relentless green wires and their martial squares? They are at once so anonymously manufactured, and so — in this site — specific. The flayed skin? Tortured torso? Yet the shapes are but vaguely suggestive. Its echoes of Goya’s Saturn? but such a remote association cannot account for much — it is no more than a deft allusion. The unity of a powerful subject with a masterful composition? Two kinds of form: that of the physical window sash and the photograph’s frame; two modes of mesh: that of the restraining wire and that of geometry’s web; two sets of hands: echoes of effort and skinned layers of paint; various sorts of wear and tear, fear and supplication, placement and relation, are here in vibrant interaction.
There is nothing like a scene to help organize an image, but that organization can be deceptive, because habit comes to the artist’s rescue: we expect walls to have doors, windows to flank them, paths to approach, trees to shade, eyes to lie in wait beneath their brows, and brows to age. We know that sky is blue and up, earth low and green or brown. Line, color, life associations, put things in their place and arrange space like seats in a stadium. For the painter, now, these elements can be rearranged, body parts disposed as chicken breasts on a platter; but for the photographer, the character of every color to be taken, every line and texture, figure or object in the shot, have yet to be determined; purely aesthetic connections must be found and their posture, their status, their position and condition must be insisted on. Digitization dissolves some of these necessities now, and allows the photographer a degree of willfulness — freedoms both exhilarating and treacherous — but his manipulations remain limited by the general understanding of his art.
So in a photograph, the disposal of elements is a given — a chimney comes with the house. They are the way they are, and must be made to appear the way they should be instead. The camera must sniff out the right relationships like a truffle pig, find them and exploit them, and put them, literally, in the best light — there are places from which the chimney can’t be seen. This may seem even more difficult when the marks on Eastman’s surfaces are so gestural yet so random and taken close up; when weathering is the result of countless factors changing constantly, the exposed layers subject to unimaginable moods of man and nature, materials expressing themselves in ways that could never be predicted (colors fading, intensifying, darkening, mingling; surfaces creasing, cracking, pitting, corroding; pasted paper ripping, cloth tearing, oil leaking, rust staining); consequently mysterious forms in every shape, including cloud, appearing as if on assignment; even making sense as features, flags, and feathers, when they are not flags or feathers really, or their ghosts, but smears and splashes; and segmentations are not larval but not footprints either, not knotted rope, though a row of rivets can be seen (#37) (how often will the words ‘mar’ ‘pit’ ‘scar’ ‘pock’ ‘speckle’ ‘drip’ ‘spot’ ‘smear’ ‘crack’ ‘fade’ cross our consciousness as we contemplate nos. 48 and 49); meanwhile colors faint like Victorian ladies, or rouse themselves for bursts of high-tech intensity, or execute violent shrieks, and ambiguous forms swim into distances an unplanned darkness has contrived — gold and green, or gray as mummy wrapping.
The liquidity of so many of these prints is striking, as well as the vicissitudes of line — the green loop like a lasso in #45, the long black dangle that divides the image — or the mystery of those vague amoebic shapes that may have been droplets whose tense edges dried up long ago like… you can have your pick of tears or dew, a sweating highball glass or the chest of a runner… each faint form immersed in a color one wants to wade in. The fact is that try as we may to interpret these shapes they remain very assertively themselves, elements that have formerly been swallowed in — and by — their wholes, subsumed into submission, defacements to be ignored when not deplored, ectoplasmic whites, for instance, entirely suspicious intruders, that are suddenly, in this photograph, the stars.
Remember the days when plays were only about overbearing kings and their duplicitous queens? When music celebrated the unseen and was penned in churches like cries in the throat? When walls were as biblical as the Bible itself, and little people were painted in left-over corners to observe the torture of a saint or to pelt stones at the savior. Then came the bankers, the businessmen, the brokers, the bourgeois. Damn the Dutch, can’t we now exclaim? Pots, kettles, clothes, spinets, tiles, towns, and seashores got attention — and what attention: the burgher in his house, as proud of himself as he is of his possessions, polished and positioned, brass gleaming, glass glistening, tiles smiling. In no more time at all, instead of the Virgin's gown, or the wrap around baby Jesus, a rumpled tablecloth awaiting the removal of lunch would be lovingly rendered. And the fat (I like to think) owner is convinced that his painting is his, and about what is his, when the spinet shall stay as silent as the scene, and those skirts forever conceal what its seams treasure. You can't own a Vermeer — it owns you.
Ultimately even lines, squares, circles, cubes pretending to be houses, shouldered their way into the obvious. And now a whistle in the street, a scratch across a piece of steel, a vandal's spray-canned piss, are deemed to be sufficiently important to deserve our scrutiny. The crowning of the trivial is complete. Might as well write a play for a washcloth or a hand towel, compose a requiem — hasn't there been? — for a heavyweight.
Remember the days when line, outline, volume, and plane... when drawing was the heart of the art; in music when melodic lines were its staff of life; when plot and character dominated fiction; when, in a painting, not a single brushstroke could be found; when the photograph was the continuum of gray between black and white? Those good old days of structure and transformation, of fugues and organ pipes, of objects with edges, stories with meaning, dances made of artful poses, artificial yet ethereal steps? Henry James placed the graciously hesitant template of his prose over the arrogantly snobby structure of English society, as comfortable in his genre as he was at his club, while we enjoy the broadcasts of the street, the boasting of balloon-assisted breasts, the baring of sad and silly souls in books, on blogs, in clubs, and have — what would you say? — to work with — what would you say? ... a society of mislaid colors, senseless scrawls, howls and habits of neglect, assorted sorts of damage.
Remember the days when line was overthrown by color? ‘Orchestration’ as practiced by Berlioz did the same in its own sphere. Not just the placement of sounds, but the sound of the sounds, became sought; the quality of the instruments themselves, the strokes of the brushes, the saturation of the oils, the rhythm of the sentences, fleeting states of consciousness, were valued, particularly Buster Keaton’s pratfalls, even snapshots taken from moving cars, the bruised feelings of fruit, badly painted boards. Genres were invaded by genres and classes collapsed in a chaos of declassification. Color compositions called for canvas big enough to sail a ship. Diminutive drawing could be exquisite, the contours of bodies fully enjoyed even when peephole size, but qualities lost their strength when muted, squeezed, mixed, diluted. One trumpet was not red enough. So orchestras grew larger, instruments multiplied, choruses invaded fourth movements as though they were neighboring countries, or arranged themselves around halls and filled in upper balconies where standing room was already at a premium.
Photographic prints got bigger, color processes improved, advances had to be used, otherwise what would have been advanced? Slides slid into obsolescence, and the camera became the servant of the computer. If Jackson Pollock’s control of color was iffy, and that of Barnett Newman dictatorial, the cameraman was a toy of fate, his colors soiled as they came from the can; soon they were water-streaked and sunburned, abraded and scratched. Above all, his were the given colors of things — at least until they were enhanced in his darkroom or at his desk. Eastman’s surfaces are initially man-made. They are the wood of former trees, brick baked from clay, quarried stone, or forged metal that has been often covered by a layer or layers of chemically organized oils. Wires are sometimes strung, or numbers hung upon these "walls." Names are stenciled on what was initially a prepared public surface, or screwed there (“GOULD”), along with the signatures of teenage defacers — who are as proud of themselves as the Dutch yet who own nothing, even their spray cans are stolen. They enshrine there the names of their girls, the whores of these hooligans very possibly, names used to brutalize the environment now merely hovering hopelessly in it, the result of impulse and opportunity. Each photograph (like #18) could be a page in the sociology of our culture: a tribute to its waste, neglect, and rage. Who would hang these trophies in his study like a believer puts his Jesus above his bed?
But of course… this is the portrait — this #18 — of one old girl called GOULD; here her identity is worn on her chest as a number; her navel, as it usually was, is locked; and her vagina, slotted to take money only and shaped like a wringer, dares us to approach her. Time has been good to her: she has never looked more ravaged, more dissolute, more diseased, more vibrant (she glows), ferocious (she’s in full war paint), as promising as a low blow, never more beautiful and ready for the show. (We are free to imagine.) (At the ticket window, narratives are freely available.) (And the more non-objective an image is, the more metaphorical its imputed story is likely to be.)
Human intention (i.e., after due deliberation), natural processes (i.e., those glacially gradual), accidents of chance and use (both intermittent and habitual), violent assaults (sudden but brief) mingle uneasily in the same space like alumni at a reunion. It is a gathering that will suffer from the same transactions that the first and second layer of these surfaces have — adding and subtracting, peeling and concealing — yet it will ultimately create forms and colors that are themselves of surpassing interest. But an interest, ultimately, of what kind?
#1 is a good place to begin. These are creatures in a falling world, or rather, in one through which they are sinking — weeping and bleeding and sinking — sinking in such a way the paths of their subsiding leave behind a shadow like a smear, until each bursts at the same time into brightness. Streaks turn into drips that drip a distance as if dripping for their lives because, even in this watery element, they are drying as they drip. They are the sperm of viruses or germs perhaps — one is free to imagine — wrapped in a hellish glow, the words “wink-n-lil-man, always & forever,” which were never addressed to anybody in particular, now no longer words or even writing, just marks like all the other dashes, loops, and curves — here tilted and tumbling; they are the genetic codes for a cruel creation made of doughy ropes, of paint and spray; or worms of a world that humankind has abandoned still finding their way through the sewers of the air… somewhere… we’ve a license to imagine.
Some of the corruption that occurs to exposed urban surfaces has causes that are subtle. #29 is a demonstration. The cuniformities we see here have survived even history itself. Paint has in places peeled away from an orderly field of riveted metal plates. Naturally, the exposed areas rusted. Nothing calamitous appears to have intervened. At first there are a few fine cracker-like lines. Then, as moisture works its way beneath the paint — and heat radiates from the surface of the steel — its protective film curls as paper curls before it begins to burn. Mud dries like this. Skin scales. To achieve this oddly attractive result, time never flew — if it were not so much slower than a creep, it could be calibrated — but now it’s flown and has no speed.
That’s what we see: the results of a silent, decorous process, as lawful as living, proceeding as art often tries to proceed and revealing the consequences of a countless number of very small steps, so gradual, so discrete, so continuous that they can never be directly seen or readily measured. The results seem random, although we know the laws at work have been followed to the letter. A continuous line of crackage crosses the photograph at precisely its halfway point, and the double row of rivets, in the same equalizing way, partitions the horizontal. A pattern of peeling on the bottom eight plates creates a boldly goofy headline at the base but leaves a less wounded hollow in the middle which is paralleled by the eight plates above whose peelings make for a contrasting bush-like density. A remarkable balance is achieved. The surface has written its history with its own skin.
Yet words fail. The finely grained erosion that is the very essence of #37, the button-like march of the rivets, the sense that the matching doors will open to form a triptych — metal on a cross of corrosion — with a severity of design and surface that emphases its elements rather than otherwise: this riot of rust and rich oxides is a thing that moisture’s made; and were the process allowed to proceed the work of art we see would be a dispersed cloud of red dust, iron dissolved by the merely wet into something supremely dry.
Except for the chalk on its blackboard and its scabrous extruded hatching, #5 is an extraordinary investigation into the color of slate and blue ink, lead and gun metal — cavernous colors that depict a consciousness of the same quality and depth. Because it is as if a painting had been made. It is as if a painter — a person — had painted it. So it is as if it were the result of that artist’s inner state. Hence its cavernous colors depict a consciousness of the same quality and depth, both morose and menacing. Wait a minute. Instead of imagining a painter for the painting the photograph resembles, let us remember this is a photograph, and, if anything, that a painting might resemble it. Then we can read this animated surface as the consequence of its own consciousness, its features the expression (in Schopenhauer's terms) of its will not ours, its history, not ours, its sufferings, the way in ancient times all things were as alive as we, and wore their will on their sleeve; because (though animism is now a myth, it is a salutary one) this tormented face represents a world alive as an animal, and bids us have respect for worn walls as well as ourselves, for the wounds of clouds and trees. Nevertheless, words fail... though not for lack of them. They settle so thickly on a work it is obscured, and when they leave, there is nothing left to see.
Let us turn to the discerning professionals. The art critic identifies the main motifs, the dominant tones, the characteristic lines, the visibility of the brush strokes, the transitions that are made across shades of pigment, perhaps from cool to warm, and registers other significant changes of value; he discovers an amused blue, gaiety in orange, or somberness in brown, finds movements that are disturbed, sensuous, excited, morose, or structures that are oval or triangular; he applauds balances that might work well in a circus; above all, he bases many connections on the old still serviceable association of ideas — resemblance, contiguity, and cause — and these often lead him to pronouncements of more general concern. For instance, when Meyer Schapiro “reads” Van Gogh’s Chair, he tells us that the chair belonged to Gauguin, and that the pouch and pipe (so poorly painted the pipe seems a floating ghost and the pouch a rumple of paper) are representations of Gauguin’s own smoking materials, and therefore semi-religious tributes to him; that the chair is rendered with uncustomary solidity and presence, while the contrast between "the unsteady, bewildering crisscross of the chair legs and rungs with the joints of the tiles" is useless for our understanding of either, but essential, presumably, for the composition as a whole; moreover, that "the crossing lines of the rush seat belong as much to the network of the floor as of the chair."
Everything, in fact, belongs to the chair, which soaks up the “orange-red tiles” and the “cool green door” for itself. The chair might be a bishop sitting for his portrait, his body a dark bulk consuming the space, while the profile, perhaps only its fat red lips, swallows everything the robes conceal, signify, and suggest. But to the photographer who is working with material of the sort this book provides us, few such observations would be relevant. As Van Gogh himself wrote about an Antwerp scene: it is “so confused that one finds no rest for the eye and gets giddy, is forced by the whirling colors and lines to look first here, then there, without it being possible to distinguish one thing from another.” They represent a world “in conflict and stress,” by being in conflict and stress. Yet in this maelstrom, things must be found that can belong to one another and achieve a state of poise and peace. It is a task for Hercules or a statistician — to find regularity in the random as if an army might advance by headlong flight.
To my mind, the photograph numbered #14 is such a splendid accomplishment. There is no gold leaf, no resplendent robe, no tumultuous battle scene, no plaintive face, no nude, no picnic with painters, no fruit or flowers, no peasant’s chair with a saintly seat, no news, no great sensation. It is made of scratched, dirt-stained, muddy colors, ghostly streaks and smudges, irregular rectangles marred by badly lettered names. It contains a patch where a piece of hardware has been removed, an enigmatic blue pants pocket (or so we might imagine), above which a mysterious black cord tangles. Its quiet colors possess the character that grand old ladies have — wear and tear becomes them — however every inch of its surface has been repeatedly soiled, quietly abused. Nevertheless, it enters the eye as, into a cup of coffee, slides a spoon of cream.
Were a spider, with its customary singularity, to wander across a sheet of typing paper, coordinates would spring to life like magic from every direction. The spider would be, at any moment, this far from that edge, that far from this, approaching one corner, leaving another. Its very heading organizes the sheet, which, if it were to slide beneath the deft legs of the creature, would alter everything as immediately, as easily as the spider lifts a leg. Geometry is always available to demark any space and capture there its object in a web of imaginary lines, since not only spiders weave. Moreover the path of the spider would be drawn in our mind; it would leave an uninked line, so if records were kept (and why should they not be?), a history of its movements across the paper could be plotted. Perhaps this spider will remind us of another like it that we have seen. Then that relation, not visual yet vital, must be reckoned present.
If the spider were a widow, apprehension would run through every relation like electricity. Meaning always matters. And custom would then demand a response: to swat it. Yet in the aesthetic realm, one could only recognize the meaning, formulate the correct cultural response, but never enact it. The photographer, forced to deal with a subject that presents him with innumerable relations — syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic — must place them inside his camera’s frame, and deal with the size and place of every space, the color of every inch and fraction, the energy of every spot and line, and account for the reason for their arrival. Connections between colors must be determined, their purity and saturation measured, and shade matched with shade, as well as groupings grouped into groups. We know this, of course, and take it for granted, partly because it happens so swiftly. The decision to shoot is very likely the result of years of careful hunting, looking, estimating, framing, failing.
However, the relations of which I speak cannot be merely those that can be created by sets of complex coordinates. The excuse for the spider’s being at X, Y, Z instead of R, S, T is too loose. If I withdraw the paper from beneath the spider, the paper between my fingers is unchanged, and the spider is still a black widow — poisonous, and with a long rap sheet. It can even be said to remain at X, Y, Z. Logicians sometimes refer to such relations as external because the terms can leave or enter them without alteration. My apprehension, if the spider is placed instead on the back of my hand, is made of this new relation, and will dissipate if the spider disappears. Most emotions are formed by such constitutive connections of the self with its surroundings, and are complex compounds. That is, the pure spatial relation will produce a startle, the recognition or suspicion that the spider is a widow will create the fear. If I walk away from the park bench I have been sitting on, all my relations with the bench, the path behind me, the shrubs and lawn and trees, will alter continuously, but the terms of these relations will not vary, nor will the relations themselves be any stronger than nominal. Such relations create no by-products, have no consequences.
Suppose that I am being stalked. Then as I suddenly leave my bench and walk away, relations come into play and gain significance that were nothing before: my approach to a call box, the population of the park, the distance between myself and my prospective mugger, a bird whose type and flight cause me to turn my head, a child's shout. There will be an invisible frame of relevance around me. If this were a scene in a movie, the cameras would follow and sustain that frame. And if the daily rushes contained a good many trees and bushes that just got themselves in by the way, the editor might try to make something of them by careful cutting, retakes, or future filming. In contrast, the still camera captures its classic moment like a score nets its fleeting notes.
Another example. The state of hydrogen and oxygen, as pure terms, is gaseous, but they become a liquid when properly engaged. In this combination, their connection is constitutive. However, though the result of their relation (water) will alter when one of them is removed, as elements they will remain as always. In a fully internal relation, as the philosophers have traditionally understood it, both the result of the relation and the terms of the relation will be fundamentally altered if any one of them is removed. Hegel holds that all relations are internal. Hume has them entirely external. At one time parts of the human body were cited as examples of the internally related, but organ transplants have weakened that opinion.
In short, the elements that mark or mar the surface of #14 are purely nominal in the real world and nothing significant would be damaged or improved if one of them were removed or something added, but in the photograph the same relations have become constitutive and fully internal. We sense this the way the spider on our hand made us apprehensive, yet we do not respond to the picture with a spasm of “good riddance,” rather with “I’ll have another helping.” Even when we feel the energy of a photograph like #12 — its torn surface and interrupted words, its violent lines and slashes — the energy is only out there to be observed and appreciated in the strange way a fire that seems to be furiously expending itself is shown to be still as its ash. Anything could be on that wall. Nothing that is there is friendly. Yet the photograph desires what it has and makes a molecule out of its elements. They belong.
‘Belong’ can signify a continuum of connections from “We belong together” and “White wine goes with fish” through “I belong to the Masons,” “The pen belongs to me,” “That’s my hand you are holding,” “We have found your DNA on the murder weapon.” If I say that I am no longer a member of the chess club, you are not likely to think that you are now speaking to a stranger, but if I tell you that I have left my church to join a Wicca, you may well wonder who this person is now. If I was six feet tall before and five feet high when I make my report, you will not ask that question, but refuse the declaration. If the various areas that make up #14 change too violently (blue becoming green, the red-lettered names turning black) the integrity of the object — still vital to the photograph — will be violated because these accidents now belong where they are; the juncture of each stretch of dirty cream, soiled white, and scuffed pink is central and essential; the figure eight the wire makes belongs like a head to a face; the scrubbed white glow about the box belongs; the intimations of line, ghost loops and barely suggested shapes, the nail holes, tack shadows, finger and hand prints, like the varied citizens of a city, belong, do their daily tasks, and dream about vacations at MOMA or the Louvre.
The world these photographs depict is used up — ill, old, odd — yet somehow immensely reassuring the way the dinner cloth, after all the diners’ places have been removed and the serving bowls are gone, will display the remains of a communion rite: its crisp white blanket a bit wrinkled, crumbed, spotted here and there by gravy or red wine, with a trace of butter, dust of pepper and flurry of salt, now and then a drip of oil or smear of sauce. The crease of an idle knife will suggest the rut of an oft-expressed opinion; there will be a drying water ring; and the napkins — those — lip-soiled, tossed to the table to signify repletion, will cover rivulets of wax that have run down from their source like streams of conversation.
Then think of that aimless wire, its interrupted function, the panels of distressed paint or metal, the sorry scrawls and the vandalism that these photographs record, and of the loving way in which they have been rendered, taken out of their sorry lives and redeemed by having to serve beauty — to serve in spite of themselves by entering into a kind of community. A strange service certainly, very likely a community too ideal to be wholly realized, without question an odd, a difficult, fiercely secular redemption, but redemption all the same. Who could not but love that loop?
…..there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. *
It is hid in the artist’s eye, just as the iris is, under its lid.
Contributors & Notes
William H. Gass — essayist, novelist, literary critic — was born in Fargo, North Dakota. He is the author of several works of fiction, including Eyes, Middle C, The Tunnel and Omensetter’s Luck, and many books of essays, including Life Sentences, A Temple of Texts, Tests of Time, and Finding a Form. A former professor of philosophy at Washington University, Gass is the recipient of The Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, the Lannan Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the first Pen/Nabokov Award, and many other decorations. He lives in St. Louis with his wife, the architect Mary Henderson Gass. An unofficial website for readers of Gass’ work can be found at http://readinggass.org.
Michael Eastman has established himself as one of the world’s leading contemporary photographic artists. The self-taught photographer has spent four decades documenting interiors and facades in cities as diverse as Havana, Paris, Rome, and New Orleans, producing large-scale photographs unified by their visual precision, monumentality, and painterly use of color. Eastman is most recognized for his explorations of architectural form and the textures of decay, which create mysterious narratives about time and place. Eastman’s photographs have appeared in Time, Life, and American Photographer, and they reside in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and other prestigious institutions. His books include Havana (2011, Prestel), Vanishing America (2008, Rizzoli) and Horses (2003, Knopf), which is now in its fifth edition. Eastman lives in St. Louis and is represented by the Edwynn Houk Gallery (New York City, Zurich). http://eastmanimages.com.
Photographs © Michael Eastman 2012 / Essay © William H. Gass 2012. William Gass’ translations of Rilke’s poetry are Gass’ own. This project was edited and published by me, Stephen Schenkenberg, in April 2012 as an iPad-only e-book, then published in July 2016 here on Medium.
In July 2012, I made this short film with Gass and Eastman talking about the project. Hope you enjoy it.