A world recombined and reordered

Ekphrasis: poetic writing on art

Criticism isn’t a form of poetic writing, but the form I plan to use for my text on Agnes Martin, the essay, might be. On can write a lyrical essay. It will be difficult, but I believe it is possible if one let’s the art one writes about seep into the text.

In a wonderful text on Edward Hopper the late Mark Strand demonstrated what is possible. Here are some excerpts:

… But what is it that determines the success of the final work? The coincidence of vision—his idea, vague at first, of what the painting might be—and the brute fact of the subject, its plain obdurate existence, just “out there” with an absolutely insular existence.

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Edward Hopper: Reclining Female Nude, Rear View, 1900–1906

Until, that is, Edward Hopper sees something about it as a possible subject for a painting and this image with its possibilities lodges itself in Hopper’s imagination and the formation of the painting’s content begins—content being, of course, what the artist brings to his subject, that quality that makes it unmistakably his, so when we look at the painting of a building or an office or a gas station, we say it’s a Hopper. We don’t say it’s a gas station. By the time the gas station appears on canvas in its final form it has ceased being just a gas station. It has become Hopperized.

It possesses something it never had before Hopper saw it as a possible subject for his painting. And for the artist, the painting exists, in part, as a mode of encountering himself. Although the encountered self may not correspond to the vision of possibility that a particular subject seemed to offer up. When Hopper said, in an interview with Brian O’Doherty, “I’m after ME,” this is undoubtedly what he meant.

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Edward Hopper: Automat, 1927

Something lifts the paintings beyond the representational registers of realism into the suggestive, quasi-mystical realm of meditation. Moments of the real world, the one we all experience, seem mysteriously taken out of time. The way the world glimpsed in passing from a train, say, or a car, will reveal a piece of a narrative whose completion we may or may not attempt, but whose suggestiveness will move us, making us conscious of the fragmentary, even fugitive nature of our own lives.

This may account for the emotional weight that so many Hopper paintings possess. And why we lapse lazily into triteness when trying to explain their particular power. Again and again, words like “loneliness” or “alienation” are used to describe the emotional character of his paintings.

—Mark Strand, On Edward Hopper

Strand is making an important point in this text: one can not grasp the artness of art through/in everyday language. Art is per definition a transgression of the ordinary. Art is something else – somewhere else, always. We can write towards it, but not transform it into words. Here is how Strand ends his text, writing on women in Hopper’s world:

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Edward Hopper: Morning Sun, 1952

His women do not seem to have lives apart from the rooms in which we find them. They peer out into a world, the one the rest of us occupy—and it may be with a degree of longing—but it is not their world. And it is this detachment from our world that compromises their erotic presence. They are unavailable. We feel it as certainly as we do the assertive geometrical character of the rooms they occupy. This spatial solidity is what lends the paintings an air of permanence and fixes the woman in place, as in Morning Sun (1952).

So much so that imagining them in any other context represents only a form of escape on the viewer’s part from the imprisoning resolution of the painting. The tendency to create narratives around the works of Hopper only sentimentalizes and trivializes them. The women in Hopper’s rooms do not have a future or a past. They have come into existence with the rooms we see them in. And yet, on some level, these paintings do invite our narrative participation—as if to show how inadequate it is. No, the paintings are each a self-enclosed universe in which its mysteriousness remains intact, and for many of us this is intolerable. To have no future, no past would mean suspension, not resolution—the unpleasant erasure of narrative, or any formal structure that would help normalize the uncanny as an unexplainable element in our own lives.

—Mark Strand, On Edward Hopper


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