Into the Abyss

By Charles A. Riley II. He is an arts journalist, curator and professor at Clarkson University. He is the author of thirty-two books on art, architecture and public policy. Upcoming books include Free as Gods (University Press of New England) and Rodin and his Circle (Chimei Museum, Taiwan).

The illusion of infinitude is a timeless aesthetic device. In music the perpetuum mobile of a fugue defies the gravitational pull of time, hinting at a heart that could beat eternally. The momentary suspension of Newtonian rules in Bach’s entries of one tier after another use the additive duality of voice over voice, that “on and on” which Immanuel Kant identified as a baseline to the sublime (erhaben). In the hands of Minimalists such as Philip Glass, this assumes a spatial quality and mathematical sheen.

In the visual arts, the conquest of space, as in the putatively infinite distance from the viewer implied by the vanishing point in a one-point perspective painting, leads the mind’s eye to an arriere pays beyond the physical limits of vision or apprehension, onward to the “light that never was on land or sea.” Track that infinite sense of regression through art history and the technical wizardry may change but the thrill of the mise en abyme remains, the viewer perched at its edge charged with the excitement of the beautiful and the terror that makes it sublime. Rubens, Turner, and the lone figures of Caspar David Friedrich posing by the edge of the sea or before a mountain range make their gesture toward the limitless prospect. Abstraction took the sublime into the unrepresentable. From the mural size of a Jackson Pollock drip painting to Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis which dwarfs the viewer in an expanse of pure red, scale and the expansive powers of color unleash the powers of immensity. When the Metropolitan Museum opened its Met Breuer building this spring with a provocative exhibition celebrating the unfinished in art, one section was dominated by work (including a small Pollock drip painting) that offered an intimation of the infinite, including the hypnotic patterns inside the mirrored chambers of Yayoi Kusama and Sol Lewitt’s Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes (1974–1982), which wittily defied closure even on an intimately small scale. The milled steel boxes of Donald Judd arrayed in endless recessionary rows on acres of dry Texas plane, or the cavernous Dia Beacon’s rank on rank of Walter de Maria’s floor pieces, glinting under skylights, showcase the paradoxical emanation of power from objects that stretch away to a vanishing point. The infinite regression into a depth, the physically dizzying experience of teetering at the brink of enormous floor openings by Michael Heizer, square and conical, plunges down into blackness from Dia’s polished concrete floors, like Edgar Allan Poe’s maelstrom, but in a museum.

When writers reach for this regression, as in Shakespeare’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” the mirror of the echo performs its magic. In a spectacularly economical short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway lays out the fate of three un-named men whose lives intersect in an outdoor café. After a brief descriptive opening, as carefully depicted as a painting by Van Gogh or Miro, the dialogue between a young and old waiter begins:

“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.


“He was in despair.”

“What about?”


“How do you know it was nothing?”

With only three characters, and a conversation between two waiters hovering on the level of the banal, the essence of the story seems as simple as Hemingway transcribing a late night at his local café. Then the meaning becomes clear. The old waiter is an insomniac. His loneliness mirrors that of their patron, whose place at the café table he will inevitably take even as the young waiter will take his and another, still younger, will take his. Hemingway reveals the three stages of their lives simultaneously, suggesting the mise en abyme of identical figures through eternity. A concluding nihilistic parody of the Lord’s Prayer hammers at a monotone, the “nothing” sounded in that opening exchange:

Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.

This depth-defying “nada” is a grim note upon which to end. With its sobering nihilism grounded in the author’s experience, it opens a seam of truth and a premonition of the clouds that were gathering toward the end of a golden era, the Jazz Age.

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