"Negotiating rapture: the power of art to transform lives." (art exhibit at Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Illinois)
Eleven artists, belonging to several of the generations active during the postwar era, appear in the following order: James Lee Byars, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, Bill Viola, Francis Bacon, Anselm Kiefer, Barnett Newman (with his quintessential The Promise, 1949), Bruce Nauman, Shirazeh Houshiary, Joseph Beuys, Lucio Fontana. The sequence generates some tough juxtapositions: how do you make the transition from, say, Bacon to Kiefer? Francis does it with vitrines, pithy displays of supplemental objects designed to initiate concepts and associations that bridge the gaps - the kind of "negotiation" called for in the exhibition's title. The passage from Bacon to Kiefer, for example, is keyed to Bacon's estheticized fantasies of sexual pleasure (rapture), which Francis links to Freudian notions of sexuality, art, and melancholia. The mediating vitrine, then, contains Durer's engraving Melancholia I, 1514, as well as Paul Klee's water-color Angelus Novus, 1920, a pictorial reference to disaster and loss that was once the property of Walter Benjamin, a Jewish victim of Nazism. Add to this a cabalistic diagram and the stage has been set for Kiefer's melancholic allusions to myth and modern German history.
With all these linkages, which often involve exotic or esoteric systems of belief, where, precisely, is the "rapture"? In his introduction to the show's catalogue (an ambitiously orchestrated volume, its contributors ranging from the cultural philosopher Homi K. Bhabha to the scholar of South Asian religions Wendy Doniger), Francis defines that mood as experience beyond one's physical bounds: "those moments of such exalted pleasure that we no longer recognize our rootedness in the material world." The connection to Bacon's heights of sexuality is obvious, but can rapture also be found in depths of melancholy? Do the reflection and meditation that melancholy summons constitute rapture? Clearly the exhibition approaches the rapturous by a wide variety of means; but this is not quite the same thing as creating the immediate condition of rapture. Francis, however, is too much of a post-Modernist (a term he and catalogue coauthor Sophia Shaw use frequently) to feel comfortable in distinguishing allusions to rapture from the real item. Post-Modernists - and Modernists too - know that language frames and negotiates all judgments of experience. As a result, a recognition of the rapturous, a verbal or pictorial self-consciousness about it, may be as fundamentally human as the transformative sensation and emotion itself, to which one's language never seems adequate.
Given all that Francis has arranged for his viewers to consider, the effect of individual works becomes uncertain. Will paintings by Martin, Newman, or Reinhardt produce a personalized sensation of rapture in the viewer, or will they communicate something of the rapture once felt so intensely (or figured as having been felt) by the artists in their studios? Does painting become an abundant source of rapture, its somewhat faded residue, or no more than an empty allegorical reference? "Negotiating Rapture" hedges its bets - if you can't feel rapture, you can still be informed of it. Yet Francis' exhibition tries to do more than merely assert an intellectual position, and this is what sets it apart from other studies in contemporary practice: its public may actually experience a shift in their mentality and mode of being. I'm serious. The exhibition induces such a remarkable integration of thinking and feeling that, for a time, you (I) forget to maintain the customary skeptical distance. In Francis' productive world of artifice, the intellect spurs the senses, even as the senses provoke the intellect.
Accordingly, a recurrent motif in "Negotiating Rapture" is contemplation, a focusing and convergence of mind and senses. (This is one way the reflective state of melancholy can be hinged into the show.) The world's great contemplators include saints in their cells and artists in their studios, self-isolating individuals who intensify their experience by concentrating on materials and objects, or on a thought, or even on a single overdetermined word (watch Nauman). Although one's mind seems to possess its words by thinking them, those same words can also occupy and overwhelm and enrapture one's being, just like waves of wondrous sensation.
"Negotiating Rapture" relies heavily on texts, both as informational placards and as actual books and manuscripts on display, the most impressive being Thoreau's autograph journal; but objects form the core. The simplest and grandest is Byars' huge golden sphere, set in a central atrium between two sequences of smaller galleries so as to be the exhibition's beginning, end, and nodal point. What Francis calls the viewer's "journey" assumes the form of a figure 8: starting from the sphere, you circle through the first set of galleries, come upon the sphere again while crossing diagonally toward the second set, and then end by circling back to the sphere. Graphically, this horizontal figure 8 is the mathematical sign for infinity - appropriately so, because infinity is a concept to be contemplated, not comprehended. In this case contemplation nevertheless leads to a certain negotiated understanding, for just as the viewer's passage through the exhibition tracks infinity's immaterial symbol, Byars' sphere of lustrous yet base matter (gilded bronze) figures infinity also. Like infinity, the surface of a sphere never ends; so to experience Byars' sphere is to encounter a finite infinity.
This kind of recursive association and allusion lies at the exhibition's soul. Hanging in view of Byars' sphere, for example, and introducing the first sequence of galleries, is a small Renaissance panel of John the Baptist (saintly contemplation). Its presence implies that contemporary art extends a cultural practice already in place centuries ago - art as meditative ritual. Next comes a Tibetan mandala, prelude to a fine group of Reinhardt's mandala-like paintings, worthy of sensory and intellectual contemplation. Beyond Reinhardt sits a vitrine containing, among other related objects, the writings and photographs of the monk Thomas Merton, whom Reinhardt knew for most of his life. To follow will be Martin's meditations in the form of penciled grids, as well as Viola's video installation Saint John of the Cross, 1983, with its contrasts of physical and auditory movement and stillness. I'm tempted to say that Viola is as sensitive to the play of pixels in his monitors and projections as Martin is to her minute deposits of graphite, yet his declared interest is in the composed and recorded image as it bears on the mysteries of life. He speaks not of technological wonders but of "the power of the mind to speculate, to fantasize."
Like Viola's art, "Negotiating Rapture" has no lesson to teach, but a speculative and fantastic sensibility to awaken and affirm. It demonstrates the human capacity to negotiate, to mediate, to connect. What gets connected are those cosmic gaps between isolated experiences that leave an individual speechless, that is, lacking fully satisfactory words or images. Ironically - as everyone knows - speechlessness has inspired great poetry and the nobler forms of philosophy, even some respectable criticism. It has also inspired the visual arts. We are forever saying and picturing what we cannot say and picture, and then being forced to acknowledge the presence of the unspeakable (the unrepresentable, the sublimity of our personal sublime); and still we proceed, all the same, saying and picturing with renewed vigor what we know we cannot.
This is all very human, or at least very Western, and also - to many Westerners - a recognition of the Eastern, a philosophical fantasia for our time. Here I think not of the celebrated conclusion to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence," but of a less familiar thought from his Zettel (Scraps): "Imagine that someone unconscious were to say 'I am conscious' - should we respond 'He ought to know'?" Imagine yourself saying "I am enraptured." How would you know? Wouldn't you be speechless? Or would you? In a certain way, we can take rapture for granted, everyone already understanding what it is. This collective knowledge comes by allusion to the experiences our culture has traditionally defined as transcendent and transformative: religious ecstasy, sexual abandon, thoughts of the beyond and infinite, contemplation of the wonders of nature. I have not yet dealt with nature, but "Negotiating Rapture" shows a lot of it - its elemental substances (Houshiary's lead and gold), its organicism (Beuys' flowers, Kiefer's straw), its images (Fontana's "rocks," Viola's mountains). And there's more. The new museum building affords dramatic views of Lake Michigan - nature unconstructed, Chicago's sublime. Byars' sphere is sited against one such view; and a photograph of the lake becomes, in appropriate silence, the catalogue's cover.
As I now reflect on what I felt and thought when I passed through "Negotiating Rapture" - silent but not speechless - I find it ever more difficult to separate feeling from thinking, senses from intellect. What, then, is rapture? How do you or I recognize it? It's when thinking with words about a certain physical experience - perhaps to focus on one word alone - seems little or no different from feeling that same experience with the eyes, on the skin, or in the heart. It's a "You ought to know" kind of experience.
Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin, and directs the Center for the Study of Modernism.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 1996|
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