Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through October 20

By Fred Camper

I had a rather unoriginal reaction to the first Barnett Newman painting I saw, in my mid-teens. I chuckled at this huge canvas that was all one color except for a thin vertical stripe, thinking how simpleminded modern art had become. But over the years, as I saw more Newmans, they began to seem less simple in their effects; once, seeing 15 or so together produced a kind of epiphany. These simple color-field pictures took on a mysterious, even awesome presence. The stripes seemed to extend the composition beyond its edges, and the colors had a primal power. There’s no real way for a writer to “prove” why this should be so, or to show why these paintings would have this effect while similar paintings by another artist seem as flat and lifeless as Newman first seemed to me. Indeed, the mystery of Newman’s art lies in its ability to be other than what it first seems, to transport the viewer out of its obvious physicality into some other realm.

For me, most great art produces some kind of rapture, an ecstatic, transformative experience that cannot be gotten any other way. But curator Richard Francis, in his introductory catalog essay, identifies the 11 artists in this Museum of Contemporary Art show, drawn primarily from outside collections, as particularly demonstrating the human need for “rapture, for those moments of such exalted pleasure that we no longer recognize our rootedness in the material world.”

It’s one thing for a work of art to become something different from what it first seems, and quite another for it to remove us from our “rootedness in the material world,” the way Newman’s art does. This kind of transcendence is produced by relatively few works in the West, especially in our century, even though the concept of complete removal is Western. In the masterworks of classical Chinese and Japanese art, plants and animals remain linked to nature even as the brushwork suggests some unspecified vastness that also inheres in these plants and animals. The few Western artists who strive for even greater lightness often create a dualistic structure in which the work’s physical form leads the viewer away from its own materiality.

In this show Newman’s The Promise (1949) at first seems simply a black canvas punctuated by two thin stripes, cream and gray, the cream stripe straight-edged, the boundaries of the gray one jagged and a bit smeared. Yet this striking, almost elegant design soon becomes something more. The blackness begins to seem oddly immeasurable, a kind of void, while the differences in color and shape between the two stripes suggest that they come from two different worlds, each with its own rules of geometry. All three elements float in ambiguous relationship with one another, and as one begins to suspect that these are fragments of a much larger universe, the mind’s eye focuses less on the picture than on the unspecified realms it seems to be limning. The painting becomes a kind of snapshot of unimaginable vastness.

The effect of Agnes Martin’s paintings is even farther from their physical appearance. In The Beach (1964) and Leaf (1965) she creates grids, endless graph-paper-like forests of hand-drawn thin black lines against a white ground. But hers is not a minimalist geometric art declaring its own materiality; instead of asserting the straight edge and the right angle, these grids of more than a hundred lines become almost mandalalike devices for focusing attention. The longer I looked at them, the more they seemed metaphors for analytical ways of thinking and the more redundant they became, until suddenly their very repetitions began to negate the rectilinear form, calling attention instead to the tiny, random-seeming variations in the lines. The grid becomes its opposite, making the nature-inspired titles seem almost realistic descriptions.

Perhaps the most extreme of such artists is Ad Reinhardt, whose paintings show few signs of the artist’s hand. Noted for his polemical advocacy of art for art’s sake, he once wrote down a long list of the things that art was not. Constantly refining his geometrical style, he began in 1954 to paint canvases that seem all black, though close inspection reveals them to be made up of rectangles with slight variations in hue from one to the next. Looking at several of these paintings at the MCA, I was reminded of the idea in religious mysticism that the “way” to the infinite is never in finite things but can be sought in the via negativa–a process that begins with negation. Certainly no conventional religious belief underlies Reinhardt’s forms, but the longer one looks at them, the more one seems taken out of the present, out of accustomed perception, out of oneself.

The value of works like these by Newman, Martin, and Reinhardt, aside from intense pleasure, is the opening they offer to mystical experience–a common need formerly filled by religion. Viewing these three artists’ work helps train the eye and mind for a kind of seeing in which imagery seems to lead to, or even contain within itself, its opposite.

But the exhibition title isn’t “Rapture,” it’s “Negotiating Rapture,” and several catalog essays claim the necessity of complex “negotiations” between viewer and artwork. I dunno–this hasn’t been the case for me. The long process of coming to feel these works as ecstatic has not involved the intellect so much as looking, and learning almost subconsciously to revise the way I look, again and again. Yet this art is being exhibited with some of the intellectual approach of an art history lecture, employing slides and lots of intellectual “negotiations.” The show provides a number of “links,” for example: artworks and other documents meant to connect these 11 artists, such as paintings by Poussin, Ingres, and Paul Klee and architectural drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. Some of these illuminate: photographs by Thomas Merton, a friend of Reinhardt’s, of small bits of nature–close-ups of a piece of wood or a few stones–suggest a common interest in achieving an elevated spiritual state by restricting one’s vision. But most of these additions seem to force intellectual connections, suggesting ideas that need to be negotiated rather than genuine paths to rapture.

Moreover, it’s hard to get close enough to many of the works to really be seized by them: wooden barriers about five feet from the wall keep viewers at a distance. Only by bringing one’s eyes right up to and then away from a Newman or Reinhardt canvas can one feel its full impact. Justifying the barriers, the MCA cites the need to protect these rare pictures, but the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted a sold-out Cezanne show, just now closing, with paintings worth a lot more on the market and used barriers only a little more than two feet from the wall. One wonders if the MCA cared more about presenting rapture as an idea than about the possibility that real viewers might actually be transported.

It’s hard to relate other artists in the show to the theme of rapture. One catalog essayist describes Joseph Beuys’s pressed plants on paper as having “a transparency that invites the viewer to see through them as if toward the primordial plant,” but to me they didn’t seem much different from amateur-made pressed vegetation. Beuys’s work as a whole seems to refer more to incidents in his own life and to the act of making each art object than to the world of the objects themselves. Anselm Kiefer’s monumental canvases of ruined landscapes, weighed down with references to German history, are definitely powerful. But their relentless physicality–thick paint evokes rough ground so well that one almost feels oneself slogging through mud, and one picture has ceramic shards and wires scattered over it–seems not only to assert the realities of destruction but to deny the mystic transcendence Martin and Reinhardt achieve. And with good reason: Kiefer is reacting to the Nazis’ celebration of transcendence via German romanticism.

Lucio Fontana’s “spatial concepts,” which help the viewer come to terms with three-dimensional perception, seem more about consciously learning to see space than about rapture. In his lead Door of a Funerary Chapel (1956) a variety of holes pierce the lead, suggesting three dimensions. But the holes are of different sizes and are arranged into intersecting lines and arcs that don’t really blend, producing a layering of implied lines and rhythms that hint at the geometry lesson, actively involving the intellect. If his works, Kiefer’s, and Beuys’s are about rapture, then arguably all good art is, and in that case I don’t understand why these particular modern artists–rather than, say, Louise Bourgeois, Antoni Tapies, and Louise Nevelson–were chosen.

Still, critics often place too much emphasis on whether the “concept” of a show succeeds or not. Who cares, when terrific artists rarely seen in Chicago are presented in reasonable depth? Despite Francis’s interest in sometimes forced ideas, at least he keeps each artist’s work together, unlike curators so concerned with their own conceptions that they intersperse works in a way that makes it hard just to see them. And this exhibit included two artists whose presence, while surprising because I wouldn’t normally have associated them with rapture, proved deeply illuminating.

Francis Bacon, about whom I’ve often had mixed feelings, never looked better. His fragmentary figures–their flesh seemingly twisted and tortured, their faces often blurred as if their identities were being lost in his sensual fields of orange or green–gain immeasurably from their proximity to Newman and Reinhardt. For the first time I could feel Bacon’s theme of the loss of individual identity, of figures dissolving into oblivion. An even bigger surprise was Bruce Nauman, usually regarded as a conceptual artist. The 16 pairs of limestone cubes strewn about the room in his Consummate Mask of Rock (1975) seem identical except for random variations in their splotchy surfaces. The proximity to Martin’s grids helped me see the meditative possibilities in their repeated rectilinearity with small differences.

Nauman’s larger theme, enunciated in a poem he wrote that’s mounted on the wall, is the “need for human companionship” and the frequent failure to fulfill that need. Wandering about the installation, reading and rereading the poem, I began to feel–as I do often with Nauman’s work–that my own body was the subject, and that by placing me in a peculiar space in between objects and language, furniture and sculpture, Nauman was causing me to question who and where I was. Not a rapturous experience exactly, but certainly transformative.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of “Study for a Portrait,” by Francis Bacon.