I’m thinking back to the afternoon in August when I took these photos at the Yayoi Kusama show at the Seattle Art Museum. What an experience.

Among Yayoi Kusama’s most famous works are her so-called “infinity rooms”—rooms with mirrors covering walls, ceilings, and sometimes floors so the reflections repeat to … well… infinity. The rooms are populated with forms—glowing pumpkins with black dots, white tuber-like forms with red dots, giant pink balls with black dots suspended from the ceiling. They multiply into a fantastic field of color and shape and form. Standing in one of these rooms is really, really cool.

Here’s the thing.

At the exhibit, you can only stay in the room for 30 seconds before the guard knocks a warning and opens the door. For one room, it was only 20 seconds! Because you’ve been standing in line for many minutes and you’ve watched the shut-knock-open routine many times, by the time it’s your turn, you are very much aware of how fast your own 30 seconds is going to go. Let me tell you, it’s over way too soon.

Now, the whole exhibit feels like a spectacle, with gobs of people standing in lines that snake and coil through the galleries, so the very short time limit seems like just another part of the spectacle. This way, the exhibit accommodates more people, the museum claims more visitors, and Kusama has more viewers, more fame. Meanwhile the longer looks that lead to deeper analysis and contemplation are impossible.

This could have been deeply frustrating, but I was with my young kids so I rolled with it. We bounded from line to line like we were at an amusement park, thrilled by our 30-second rides on the aesthetic roller coasters. So much for long looks. Woo-wee! I loved it.

It was only later that I thought about what Kusama is up to with her time limits. She’s condensing the interaction with each artwork into a tight, intense experience of color, form, light, presence, space, infinity. She focuses your attention. She invites you to be present.

It goes like this. You wait and wait and wait. Anticipation grows. You turn a corner. You get tantalizing glimpses when the door opens and closes for others. Three steps closer. It’s almost your turn. You get briefed by the docent—no bags, no touching—okay.

NOW. You walk in and it’s your turn. You try to take in as much as you can, very much aware that the seconds are ticking. Look! Look close. Look out. Look up. Look around. Don’t waste a second.

Right.

Look close. Look out. Look around.

Don’t waste a second.

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Brice Marden
Second Letter (Zen Spring), 2006-2009
(Art Institute of Chicago)

Back in Chicago, back at the Art Institute. This Brice Marden painting caught my eye yet again–perhaps because it seems a little persnickety and simply honest at the same time.

Like many of Marden’s recent paintings, this one explores the rhythm and grace of the line in Asian calligraphy. It flows smoothly and expressively, but it is also tightly controlled. Of course, there are no actual letter forms–not even a hint of one–just lines, just gesture.

That said, to my eye, this painting evokes a map–like the one I would tuck under the headrests from the backseat on big car trips when I was a kid.

But this one is huge. I want to stand back to take it all in. My eyes trace the lines. There’s no single pathway, so my eye meanders, backtracks, loops, and sometimes jumps the track of one line to pick up another.

I move quickly at first–my eye racing through the painting. If I step closer though, I slow down, in part because at close range you can see some underpainting–lines that were once visible but have been erased or lines that have been traced by a different color. Hints of what was once there. Paths have been rerouted, bypassed, reinforced.

This seems like it could be a map of my thoughts these days. Restless, darting, full of energy and persistence, but not really amounting to much. I backtrack, get stuck in endless loops, take crazy turns. And for what?

I appreciate how Marden includes the two bands of color on either side that firmly establish the boundaries. The scramble of lines may push, even lean, against them, but those wide edges don’t budge. There’s some security there. (I wonder if that’s one difference between sanity and insanity.)

But the painting is good for me precisely because it does slow me down. When I force myself to pick a line and trace it steadily, noting the turns and intersections, my eyes slow down, my mind slows down, my breathing slows down. There’s a rhythm I start feeling in my body–first my head, then arms (the gesture of the artist?), then my torso and legs. All moving with the slow pull of the line.

If I was alone in the gallery, I wonder if I would start dancing.

My mind no longer races over the surface, but settles, sways, lifts, dives, and even finds direction … in a line.

Abstractions … Morris Louis

September 16, 2013

Morris Louis, Saraband, 1959 (Guggenheim Museum, NY)

Morris Louis, Saraband, 1959
(Guggenheim Museum, NY)

One of the most immediate responses I’ve ever had to a work of art was a Morris Louis painting.

These canvases are not really painted as much as they are stained. He was inspired by another painter—Helen Frankenthaler—who was applying very thin paint to unprimed canvas so that the paint actually seeped into the fabric. Louis also used thin paint, but he would let the paint run down the canvases, sometimes controlling the direction of the flow, sometimes not. The paint blended as he poured layer after layer creating these “veils” of liquid color.

The paintings are big. Unless you’re in a very large gallery and are able to stand way back, the paintings are imposing. Your frame of vision is filled with the streaming color.

So, one day I was walking through a museum and I came across a Louis painting that stopped me in my tracks. I turned to face it and was immediately overcome. It felt like the painting came off the wall and hovered there in front of me. The streams of color seemed to be pouring over me and seeping into my pores.

I don’t think I’ve ever had such a visceral experience with a painting, but it was a mystical experience too.

I believe in the sacramental principle which holds that everything has the potential to be a vehicle of God’s grace. The catch is: you have to be on the lookout for it. Most of the time, I do not have my eyes open, but every once in a while—like standing in front of that Louis painting—God reveals his grace in dramatic fashion.

That day in the museum, the grace was the reality of his presence flowing over me, seeping into my soul, soaking me through and through.

As I turned to walk away, I wanted to wrap that canvas around my whole body and so carry that experience with me right out of the building. I didn’t need to, though. I feel it even now when I see the painting.

I guess I’m stained too, but in a good way.

Abstractions … Rothko

September 2, 2013

Mark Rothko, Seagram Murals, 1958-59 (Tate Modern, London)

Mark Rothko, Seagram Murals, 1958-59 (Tate Modern, London)

Some of the most powerful artworks, in my mind, are abstract paintings from the 20th century. I’ve had some profound experiences standing in front of these. The problem is you can’t really have the same kinds of experiences viewing them in a book or (especially) on a computer screen. It just doesn’t work.

Still, I’m eager to return to these artworks in an effort to breathe some energy back into my spiritual life. It won’t be the same for you, but maybe you can get the idea.

A few years ago, I visited the Tate Modern during a long layover in London. When I walked into the room with the set of paintings that Rothko did for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York, I was immediately captivated. I spent time standing in front of each one, peering into each one. Because when face-to-face with a Rothko, that’s what you do. Or, at least that’s the intent.

Red on Maroon 1959 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970This set is intense and vibrant. He used a deep burgundy, a very dark purple, and a shimmery grey (among other colors, I’m sure), applied in many, many layers of thin paint. So thin, actually, that the colors bleed through creating an iridescence. The effect is mesmerizing because you feel like you’re looking through the painting, or through the surface, into some void. In fact, if you stand close to the painting so that it fills your frame of vision (as you’re supposed to do), you can get the sensation of floating inside it (in that way, it’s like a two-dimensional version of a Turrell work).

I got so sucked into these paintings that I lost all track of time, and ended up spending an hour and a half in that one room. Those paintings took a hold on me and wouldn’t let me go. They swallowed me.

I’ve read that Rothko believed that paintings could facilitate a transcendental experience. By painting basic human emotions using only color and shape, he hoped to give viewers an experience of those emotions, so that they would actually feel it when looking at the painting.

I’m not sure what he intended for Seagram paintings, but I can tell you that looking into those paintings gave me a deep awareness—not an understanding, but an attentiveness, an experience—of the infiniteness of God.

I guess you could say this was a mystical experience because I gained insight into a mystery of God that our rational minds cannot really grasp and words cannot express. I cannot explain in words what I grasped in that experience. I cannot tell  you about the infiniteness of God, I can only say I get it. Or, at least I get it a little more than I did before.

I did feel swallowed. Like Jonah, I didn’t know what was about to happen when I turned the corner into that room, but there I was sitting in the belly of a great fish. And it didn’t take long for me to start praying—maybe not for escape, but certainly in acknowledgement of the greatness of God. And when I was finally let go, I walked out a different person than when I walked in. Awake. Aware.