Giving Visibility to the Invisible
THE 20th-century surrealists favored the notion of chance encounters between unlikely things (a sewing machine and an umbrella, in one often cited poetic fantasy that inspired them). The idea was to spark some fresh, or disturbing, association. It's what T. S. Eliot once called "the amalgamation of disparates," out of which surprising poetry may emerge.
But more interesting than shock as the result of such tactics is the possibility of new insight, the aim, at least, of the "Crosscurrents in Art" series.
If, at base, a shared source of creativity is common to every artist - a possible point of view - then all artists dip into the same bowl of soup, however important individuality may also seem to be.
Beholders of art - with the entire panorama of art history to cast their gaze over - have a specially comprehensive view, therefore, from which to notice the congruous in the incongruous, and perceive the connected in the unconnected. This overview is something artists themselves do not necessarily have or cultivate.
Sometimes artists are closely or distantly aware of each other's influence. At other times, the likelihood of influence is actually remote or even impossible. But nevertheless, all kinds of threads link artists and their works, across continents and centuries and cultures, perhaps without their knowing. To the viewer, though, every artist and every work is part of one huge kaleidoscopic image, and while we relish differences, we can also encounter similarities. At a basic level, for instance, all artists
who use color have the same range of colors to call on; this alone is common ground that cannot be ignored. But what they each do with those colors, and even more, what those colors mean to them, can either subtly or obviously reveal their character differences or similarities.
Perhaps this series' concluding confrontation of images - a Byzantine church mosaic (AD 380-90), an Amish quilt (c. 1920), and a "kinetic" work by Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), an Israeli artist working in Paris, should more properly be headed "undercurrents." Invisible forces are significantly at play below the visible surfaces of all three works. Indeed each is a conscious attempt to give visibility to the invisible. Certainly, all three works are the way they are because of a questioning of the nature of art
vis-a-vis religion. Religion is their context and their motivation. Agam has said that the aim of his art is "to transcend the visible."
While Agam is certainly aware of much earlier art, he cannot be said to have been consciously influenced by Byzantine mosaics. On the other hand, he is more than likely to know some of these mosaics through books or even in the flesh. The mosaics in Salonika and Ravenna are part of the general knowledge of art history.
The maker of this crazy quilt, a Mrs. Gorman, whose name is known (unusual for an Amish quiltmaker), certainly knew nothing of Agam. It is even a question whether or not she was aware of the "modern art" of her day: Amish communities, adhering to strict nonconforming principles, rejecting luxury and show, notably separate themselves from others in many ways. But not in every way: Actually, the century-long tradition of quiltmaking by Amish women was itself a practice borrowed, in the first place, from ot her Americans. It was then made into a distinctive Amish tradition with its own traits, constraints, and significance. Plain colors organized in a centralized geometrical design, like a medallion, result from the Amish emphasis on community rather than individuality. What the Amish quiltmakers were definitely not doing was making works of art to be hung on a wall.
Obviously the anonymous craftsmen who depicted with thousands of mosaic tesserae - tiny square pieces of glass and stone - the saintly figures in the great Church of St. George in Salonika, Greece, were working in blissful ignorance of the extraordinary plethora of artistic invention that has blossomed in the centuries between then and now. But we, the art-beholders, have no such ignorance. We have the benefits, and also the disadvantages of inclusive hindsight.
These unnamed mosaicists worked in the context of dogmatic traditions, under the demands of ecclesiastical regulations. Their individual vision did not matter.
As with later medieval church artists, their role was to use the walls, floors, and ceilings of churches to preach established Christian teachings to unlettered congregations. The mosaics are essentially like icons, and they were made not for originality, but to perpetuate and maintain unchangeable ideas.
As the congregations in the larger buildings were often far away from the mosaics, there was one demand on the craftsmen, of a technical rather than a doctrinal kind, which made for change and development. This demand was that the images should be as distinct and dramatic as possible. The saints in this case were clearly meant to be both symbols and realistic figures, but above all they were meant to be seen.
As Byzantine mosaics continued to appear over a many years, innovations did happen. Reflective gold tesserae were introduced for greater contrast of brightness and darkness; then silver tesserae began to be used, sometimes intermingled with white ones: In order to make maximum visual impact, the mosaic artists experimented with available technology, producing highly imaginative optical effects. To make the shadows of a face, for example, more powerful, they used vividly contrasting positive colors rather
than negative dull ones. In some cases this led to color combinations not far from those that the 20th-century Fauves and Expressionists believed they had shockingly invented. The Byzantine mosaicists even, at one stage, started to angle their tesserae so that they would sparkle with reflected light even more directly into the eyes of the congregation below. They took into account the precise viewpoint of their beholders.
Yaacov Agam's multidimensional images, so indelibly of our time, likewise concern themselves with the standpoint of the viewer. In fact the viewer's participation in Agam's art has been taken so far that it might be said it is the be-all and end-all of his art. He has invented, with persistent certainty of vision, artifacts which, if they do not actually move themselves, constantly shift and change in appearance in instant response to the viewer's viewpoint. They are like enlarged images of iridescence, of fragmented rainbow colors (similar to patchworks or mosaics) unreachable and intangible. They do not just change a little from one angle to another, they become radically different. So his art is not of fixed images at all. Like church mosaics of the early Christian era, his is really an environmental or architectural art: He has extended his imagery onto the floor as well as the walls in some instances.
His escape from the fixed image is far more than a "modernist" stance. He has vigorously made sure people understand the cultural-historical-religious credo from which his work springs: the "desire to give plastic and artistic expression to the ancient Hebrew concept of reality." His understanding is that "art is the mirror of reality" and that the reality his art mirrors is monotheistic, infinite, and without form. This means that the visible colors and shapes that he uses are all to do with illusion, w ith "things which appear and disappear, butterflies, smiles, and so on."
But while previous art seems almost entirely to have been concerned with stilling movement and time in a kind of eternal state, Agam does not believe in eternity, he says, at all. Time is his reality - as it might be for a composer of music. To him time is life itself. He is concerned not with what is, but with what is "coming into being." Thus Agam's art can only be experienced as something that takes time like music or poetry, and not as a static or, as he would see it, a dead image. Under all of this lies the second commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images."
Amish quilts make no claim to be "art," unless it is in an 18th-century sense - as the word is used, for example, in Samuel Johnson's definition of a bee: "The animal that makes honey, remarkable for its industry and art." The communities of Amish women who have made quilts might also be described as "remarkable for their industry and art," and it is not inappropriate that part of the process of quiltmaking is done communally, the women all working together in what is called a "quilting bee." As with bee s, the Amish individual is unimportant. What matters is the community.
Amish religion and home life are entirely entwined, and the relationship of their most distinctive artifacts, the quilts, to both religion and home life cannot be doubted. These artifacts were functional as well as beautiful. While expense was often not spared in purchasing fine cloth to make them, they could never be thought of as display or show. Adherence to traditions and conventions underlies them, particularly those from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where for almost a century Amish women stuck t o only about 11 formats or patterns. They had definite ideas about colors, too, which related to strictly regarded traditions in clothing. Plain colors were used, not decorated or patterned materials. Yellow and white appear rarely in the quilts, and the arrangement of colors has a quiet, often somber, harmony about it.
But the color and pattern of these beautifully sewn bedcovers can have an visual resonance (some are called "Sunshine and Shadow") and a canny refinement of tone, which has made it feasible in recent years for mainstream American art institutions to start presenting them as fine art objects. Painters like Albers and Noland are sometimes mentioned when Amish quilts are under discussion.
The fact is, though, that in purpose and origin they have nothing to do with "modern art" (even in the optically exciting vibrations found in some of them - like mosaics ... like Agam...). They have everything to do with a religion that is also a way of life, with an embracing community spirit, and with womanhood.