Saturday, November 28, 2015

Art Dogmatics: Pollock and Rothko

For this one man - it is as if the framework is now filled out and burst through - is the Son of God who is one with God the Father and is Himself God. - Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1.

No one could have been more surprised than me when a visit earlier this week to the National Gallery of Art led to an outstanding spoken meditation on theology, liturgy and modern art. At the outset I have to say that, as much as I love art, the initial surprise arose when I discovered that I would in fact be interested in visiting the modern art exhibition - an era that I typically avoid in favor of the work done by anyone earlier than the early 20th century. Add to the mix that Trudy (a friend, fellow seminarian and ordinand from the Church of England studying this semester at Virginia Theological Seminary) had the specific goal of seeking out the works of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and this day was shaping up to be something that was far out of my usual comfort zone.

Pollock's "Lavender Mist Number 1" dominated the far wall in gallery G39, and while it was the second painting with which Trudy and I spent a great deal of time it was the one that seemed to dominate the conversation. The Barth quote found at the top of this post seems quite appropriate to this painting, as the two of us discussed how the busy-ness of the work - the chaos and rush of multiple images and impressions - seemed to be restrained by the thin metal frame surrounding it, just on the verge of bursting through. The National Gallery summary refers to the fact that there are no discernible focal points to this painting, and I think that contributed to its great attraction for me. As seminarians and (God willing) future priests in the Church of England and Episcopal Church, respectively, Trudy and I (and our many classmates and predecessors) are used to the process of discernment, of finding how God has been present and the Holy Spirit has been active throughout our journeys. Similarly, discernment is valuable in seeking out the hidden layers and meanings in artwork.

During our conversation, Trudy applied the wonderful phrase "beautiful chaos" to the Pollock painting - a very apropos description. The quick glance that I would have typically given this work would have revealed nothing more than a giant canvas of paint splatters and the occasional handprint. But there are things that appear - that are seemingly created - out of the chaos found here. At first glance, I saw a thin, pale line of coral color weaving throughout, something that immediately evoked thoughts of the Holy Spirit winding throughout all that occurs. I then saw handprints, presumably the handprints of Pollock (and a later check confirmed this) but, at the time, symbols of the hand of God on all that is in us and around us. Trudy mentioned some of the conversations held in her liturgics class about the mysteries of the liturgy and some of the chaos found there. In reflecting on that I have been considering how - as with the various aspects of the painting that appeared to me with each new glance - there are things that appear in each service, how something I may notice with the Eucharist one week may be replaced the very next by something I see in the face of a congregant during the recitation of the Creed.

And then there is the first of the two Rothko's which we explored, "Untitled 1955." Where the Pollock was chaotic, this is much more simple, unbounded by any constraint and flowing gently off the edges of the canvas. There is something very Trinitarian about it - three individual blocks of different colors and thicknesses, each maintaining their individuality but crucial to the overall unity of the piece. In considering it further, one might also see the ancient understanding of the three levels of creation: the heavens; the earth; and the underworld. It is orderly and held together by something greater and invisible, yet something that allows for the release of the tension of the solid blocks of color.

This visit is one prompting ongoing reflection, and it has certainly given me the opportunity to ponder anew what gifts can be found in art that I would historically have preferred to ignore. With apologies in advance to Trudy, I would like to close with this excerpt from her post:

'Do we need to understand the art to appreciate or enjoy it?' Standing there we realised that we do not. We can simply be in its presence and enjoy what we personally take from the painting, whether that is simply liking the look of it, appreciating all that went into it or finding something profound. Similarly with liturgy, we do not need to know the intricate details of everything that is going on. We can simply be in its presence. Just like modern art, it is multi-layered.

[Note: Trudy's full post on this experience and our reflections can be read here.]