Conditions of a Morning

A painter’s thoughts about everyday routine 

It’s morning.

I am not yet fully awake and I am warm in my bed—aware of a crook in my right my arm. My legs lie heavy upon a firm mattress and one of my limbs, extended, is being held under the weight of my partner’s head. The weight of his head resting on my arm causes me to notice how the rest of my body is arranged in relationship to his—stretched out, lying on my back with my left hand resting on my stomach and the toes of my right foot touching the top of my partner’s left foot while his body rests on his left side, torso turned towards me, eyelids lightly closed and his warm breathe caressing my neck in a heavy steady rhythm. A cat has found a nook between us to curl herself into. Our body heat is cozy, sheltering her from the hum cold air circulating in the enclosed apartment space. Another cat is sleeping on my left foot. Two blankets and a sheet, dusted with cat hairs, are wrapped snugly around my shoulders. In three places I feel the pressure of other bodies next to mine. They are providing me with a feeling of their weight, mass, density, temperature produced by their metabolic rates… and they are holding in place this position in which I begin to wake. Each time I move my feet I feel the heavy determination of a cat who refuses to budge from her place of comfort—and the same can be said of the other two bodies. Coolness filters through wooden slats of shades drawn down before the windows that face inward to the front living room and westward towards the city skyline.

Before long I am standing in front of an east-facing window holding a cup of coffee in my palms, awaiting the transition from mental languid-ity to anticipation. Again it seems as if I have moved seamlessly, more or less, through the conditions of the morning. While I stare, lackadaisical, into the cool freshness of the air after fifteen minutes of what has become my morning routine, do I have memories of turning down the sheets and crawling out of bed or putting on my socks before walking to the bathroom? When I grab the handle to turn on the shower or plug in the toaster to make a snack do I think about this action afterwards? No. Yet the details of me moving within walls and between spaces of objects, the mechanics of actions performed on things, the particular sensations of temperature and textures, and the manner in which these moments occur are essential components that connect memories I do have — memories of being in a place before this room and now being here.

​I am a painter and this illustrates how I think about waking up to winter mornings in my Brooklyn apartment—with a partner and two cats, a cup of fresh brewed coffee and the suns’s early rays of light cutting softly across dawn’s blue skies into my living space. Sometimes if I wait for it I can catch a beam of sunlight streaming in through the kitchen from the eastward facing window, light cutting through the glass panes highlighting and bouncing off the edge of the metal vase sitting atop the fridge and projecting a semi-circle ring of light against the wall on the other side of the room (a light that lasts only a few minutes but which on some mornings excites the cats who chase after the strange glow that slides from the bottom corner of the kitchen table and disappears against a door frame). By the time I am here in the kitchen with my cup of coffee (and occasionally the beam of light) I have already gone through my routine and forgotten about it. In fact, it may be the case that I never really notice all that is happening all the time—not just mornings, but all hours of day. I am not sure my memory permits a full acknowledgement of everything. For, if it did, I may not be able to move or act for myself, instead completely paralyzed and overwhelmed with so many stimuli. Everything, from turning on a shower and brewing coffee to toasting a piece of toast, would be just too incredible, sensational…and scary.

If I understand it correctly, Kant says phenomena informs us about the world. He thinks of phenomena as the logical world to which we are restricted. This includes the world we see, and through Kant’s definition I imagine this phenomenal world acting as a visual cacaphony of surface effects—pieces of lights, objects and actions working together to present the world to us as it appears. Kant considers ways to transcend this experience completely because he thinks we must get past the logical world to discover nature as it really is. He says great works of art, before being subjected to a history or canon, may be able to do this. New and revolutionary works of art break from the traditional ways we experience the world to suspend us, momentarily, in what is not directly accessible to observation, allowing us a moment of truth, of freedom. This occurs first through our experience of an artwork’s aesthetic qualities and the phenomena of this “thing-in-itself”- this thing yet to be understood but which no less has an impact on us.

Temple Lights, oil on canvas, 14 x 88 inches, 2010

Heidegger says that it is through the phenomena of art that the world is “un-veiled.” He says the truth about things in this world becomes expressed through the concept of what the artwork’s materials comes to represent. My favorite example of this idea is illustrated in Heidegger’s discussion about a temple made of stone. The temple, with walls of stone taken from the ground and erected to frame the earth and sky, represents man’s idea of the world—a world that is made of stone and landscape and sky—and man’s place in it. The world appears as the truth of what it is through the phenomena of its being, brought forth through art.

My sense is close to Heidegger and much indebted to Kant. I think about the invisible natural world and it’s “veil” of phenomena. For myself, this (visual) veil is anything but static. Its a moving transparency of the world that reveals the world as it is—a world that I and everyone—everything—is always suspended and swimming within. We are constantly brushing against “things-in-themselves” and moving between walls that are continually being erected before crumbling to the ground before us. Its only a matter of time before the structures we think we know change shape and orientation.

In the morning when barely awake my body’s movements are fluid within the spaces, lights and situations that will become a history of another fifteen minutes’ time (and which may very well be said to have been yesterdays, last week’s, or tomorrow’s routines). Thoughts are slow to naught at least in my trying to imagine a recollection of what they may have been, just as the handle in the shower and steam that fogged my windows melded in my memories of another day breaking (waking) in New York morning light. Similar to my experience of things and time in the mornings, my time spent painting is a fluid loss of memory. I can remember what idea I begin with, but rarely know how I get to an end. A painting is first thought with something specific in mind—a place or experience, something read or lived. But as I bring that idea with me to the studio this, my source, must do something it’s never done before. It now has to be re-imagined in the language of paint. In the Heideggerian sense, the re-imagining must entail a translation of an experience into the framework of a different kind of material before it can become real again—and even then only real in a new and unpredictable way. The memory of “what was” to “what is” is also forgetting “what was” so as to let “it” become “what it can now be” in a painting.

Gravity Pulling at my Ear, oil on canvas, 72 x 26.5 inches, 2012

Here in my studio, no longer languid but not yet fully awake, my thoughts rarely center on the purpose of a painter’s daily exercise. From “where I began” I move to “where I am in the present with the painting”, forgetting much that has happened in the process in order to allow a revealing of an aesthetic experience. The time and effort spent working—mixing color and placing it on canvas, the brushes, the lighting, when I was standing, if I was sitting, eating, drinking, talking on the phone, pacing, writing, fighting ants, tuning out noise, turning up music, stretching, mumbling, staring, cursing —is everywhere in a painting but also forgotten. I become absorbed by the converging and diverging colors in the unfixed fields of my painting’s spaces, exploring their nature till at last I am returned, in a way unforeseen, to where I began. A painting produced from the feelings and memory of an experience, made of carefully mixed tints and gesture, is a painting of one kind of history remembered (vaguely) and another momentarily lost.