BOSTON — WHY would an artist like the New Zealander Colin McCahon (1919-1987) have deliberately tested the public eye and risked an opportunity for success and recognition by making paintings that flew in the face of convention? Was it possible he somehow saw his creative gift as a solemn responsibility, something not to be compromised?
It might be that a true artist gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want. McCahon was willing to put aside the public's expectations, not out of spite, but so that he could ask larger questions. He chose radical themes and a radical means by which to express them. His questions were fundamentally ontological, spiritual in nature, and the clearest way he knew how to ask them was with painted words.
But because religious subject matter violates the precious modern dictum of "art for art's sake," it has been considered inappropriate for use in contemporary art. After almost 2,000 years in the service of churches, illustrating their most-favored themes, art was freed of such duties during the 19th century. Nevertheless, McCahon pursued these religious questions in his work throughout his life, first using the figure, then the landscape, and finally, just words.
Using words got McCahon into just as much trouble. There is a general understanding that a painting must be expressed with images. The viewer not only feels cheated by the use of words but also sees their presence as a failure on the part of the artist. McCahon used words, however, because he was drawn to the way they looked.
As a boy, he was once impressed by a professional sign painter working on a storefront window. It enchanted him. It spoke to him and inspired him as much as the New Zealand landscape. He saw beauty there, and he wanted to share it.
This is the thing that is surprising about his use of words. They are alive. They sing with feeling, a delicate grace, a robust vitality, and a silvery light. With words, McCahon discovered a true expression for himself, giving him a freedom that unleashed the energy inside him.
My first experience with McCahon was watching a documentary of his life and work (most of his paintings are in collections in Australia or New Zealand, although I was fortunate to see two here in Boston). What struck me was not so much his grand and brooding landscapes as the early religious work and the word paintings.
I felt immediately what he was up against in terms of public opinion, and I was astonished by his conviction. It is difficult enough to be an artist, but what he did was like swimming up a waterfall. To most people at the time, it was just plain contrariness. Today, as is so often the case, he is a national treasure and a hero to younger painters.
Interestingly, as early as the 1940s he began painting titles on his paintings. They had to be seen and read as part of the image. He even used speech balloons, cartoon style, to make the figures in his religious paintings talk.
People naturally thought he must have been joking, but he wasn't. He was looking for a way to make something happen. He recognized the possibilities he saw in the comic strip. Nobody was doing anything like it in painting. He was working totally alone, and most people would say over the edge, not on it.
In the 1950s, McCahon turned to the landscape as a metaphor for his religious inquiry. He had a brief but influential flirtation with Cubism and then Abstract Expressionism.
The result was an expansive and gestural landscape that was broken up by separate panels and planes.
McCahon assimilated these influences quickly and naturally, keeping his vision on track.
By 1960, words crept back into the landscapes, which had become more and more abstract and geometric. By 1970, words had taken over the landscape - a presence that was to become more or less implied from then on. Words and numbers filled his paintings, some of which joined panel to panel to reenact the experience of landscape through movement.
It was the landscapes that brought McCahon success at home, but it is the word images for which he has achieved recognition abroad. The power and originality of these late paintings is magnificent and undeniable. We don't even have to read them to ingest their meaning.
There is something that happens as we confront them. They talk to us beyond language. Each turn of a letter, each line of Scripture, poetry, or prose, is a sliver of light or a shadow cast on the water.
They are at once enduring, longing, believing, and gratifying. They complete a necessary link in the chain of human experience. A piece we were missing.