On April 9, 1787 a 38-year-old Goethe spent the day touring the Villa Palagonia. Several decades after the estate’s initial construction, Francesco Ferdinando II Gravina, Prince of Palagonia, adorned the site with innumerable statues of monsters. Mythical creatures, hunchbacked beasts, and all manner of animal-human hybrids were given free rein to mock, jeer and carouse. This was in 1749, coincidentally also the year of Goethe’s birth. Goethe describes the villa and its creator in terms of “madness,” “mania,” “lunacy,” “delirium,” and “the bad taste and folly of an eccentric mind.” The poet was so repulsed by this landscape of grotesques, in fact, that he could not help but go on at length about it in his journal, wherein he produces a gem of an entry that is as much teratology and it is topology. It is almost as if, who can say, some part of him delighted in what his intellect sought to reject.
I think of this episode any time I have the good fortune to visit an art environment. Goethe’s judgments about the villa are laughably misguided, but he does us a great service in perfectly capturing the visceral shock of entering a space so singular that it strikes us truly alien. And, it must be admitted, he is probably not too far off in his surmising that Palagonia’s chapel holds the key to all its other parts: “Only in the brain of a religious fanatic could it have grown to such rampant proportions.” What this misses, however, is that such a realm is not created simply by dint of the idée fixe of fanaticism but by way of its itinerant cousin—ecstacy. In this instance, the word should remind us not so much of pleasure than of its originary meaning, “to stand outside oneself.” So what seems most foreign to us in such environments is precisely that we are standing in another’s “outside himself.”
This was, to my enormous gratification, just my experience on a recent visit to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. The trip to the garden was arranged as a Father’s Day gift by my wife, Heather, and it being my first time there I was not entirely sure what to expect. In my days of collecting self-taught art I had, of course, come across Finster’s work with an almost exhausting regularity. In all honesty, while I found many of his pieces very likeable, I was never gripped by his work in any meaningful way. But for three days and two nights I was granted a remarkable degree of freedom to explore the grounds where Finster produced his life’s work, and every moment seemed to amplify something essential for me in art. While it is tempting to think of that “outside” of ecstasy as this crucial thing, I think that is in fact something extra and unguaranteed. Ecstasy is a potlatch expenditure. More basic and therefore more easily overlooked is the simple fact that artworks are made, indeed, by working. It was with this truism that I found myself sitting in Paradise Garden.
I arrived on a Monday, when the Garden is closed to the public, but had been left a key for entry. I let myself in, happy that my initial exploration would be mine alone. Pathways, whimsies and sculptures seemed at first more grown than crafted. All was unhurried. A workshop and numerous sheds were stocked with rusted over equipment. Though I knew a great deal of restoration must have been done, I could well imagine every bit and bob rested just where Finster had left it. It felt in one respect like the mausoleum of a man’s final days. Yet no dread came of this impression. Here, after all, was where the artist worked at creating, and in this sort of working there is an utmost vitality and, yes, there is ecstasy. Finster’s life is in even the smallest cranny of Paradise Garden.
Before painting, Finster repaired bicycles and similar machines. There is utility in such things. One day while refurbishing a bike, he noticed a spot of paint on his forefinger that resembled a face. It spoke, telling Finster to “paint sacred art.” He laid down his old tools, actually cementing many within a walkway, and devoted himself to new instruments. In this origin is the “use” of his painting, ultimately activated more by viewership than visions. Finster, to give just one example, was delighted for his art to grace the cover of Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, because everyone who bought the album was sure to see the numerous biblical verses he had incorporated into the imagery. What counted, quite literally, was proliferation. Still, mechanical reproduction was plainly insufficient. Dynamic proliferation sees the production of individuated bodies, making a marriage with inventiveness. Hence the crux of Finster’s paradise: the inventor creates, in the Creator is salvation. As an inventor of images Finster acted as a godly extension, and the world in turn became an extension of him. Elvis Presley, Coke-a-Cola, all worldly things were the cogs and flywheels of his invention. And each invention was carefully numbered, as though the number itself was a holy significant, until at last came the final tally of 46,991.
As evening came on I found myself content to wander about the mosaic garden. Captivated by a mound of grinning concrete faces topped with strange headwear, I made a few rough sketches, imaging them as Phrygian peasants or foot soldiers of Atlantis. Then for a long while I sat, considering my impressions of Paradise Garden. It occurred to me that a considerable amount of the artwork throughout the place was not Finster’s at all but that of friends and visitors. At one point, as I was on the phone with Heather, I had turned a corner to meet a much faded Purvis Young painting. It was the size of a barn. An elevated covered walk, called the “rolling chair ramp,” comprises a gallery of artists who had left works as gifts for Finster. He dutifully nailed each one up, frequently writing the artist’s name and phone number beside their piece. Would anyone still answer a call from this odd museum? Now in the mosaic garden I absently pushed a pencil stub about, searching for shapes, wondering at the rude business of making art and putting it out into the world.
Occasionally my work routine ebbs, and I’ve come to consider these rests simply as another part of the creative process. But the time comes when it is intolerable, and then I have to find my way back into doing the work, building up yet again an array of small efforts that necessarily precede the painting itself. This reentry is frequently unpleasant. Drawing goes poorly. Ideas go nowhere. I’m not quite back in the habit of letting my own practices take me by surprise, and so I’m a long way still from where my ecstasy is likeliest to appear, if it is to appear at all. The only thing for it is to press on. Needless to say, I do not share Finster’s belief in a visionary use for art. In fact, proliferation causes me a bit of embarrassment. I instead tend to see art as fundamentally useless, a truly wasteful practice. It is not the waste of the garbage heap, mind you, but a sloughing off of phenomenological excess. What compels me to create is the very thing that so often frustrates creation: I believe in futility. I ask myself, “What’s the point of making art, anyway?” and receive no answer. These are decisive moments, because I might very well give up but so far have continued to choose the possibilities offered by that silence. I work to no ready end. I work to keep working.
Before long I laid my notebook aside. Here were those fits and starts of beginning again. As night fell strings of lights began to glow, casting everything in peaceful warmth. I was in someone else’s “outside himself,” a space of creation that wasn’t mine—and for that reason alone it offered a singular comfort. Perhaps it was a happenstance comfort that might just as easily have been the repulsion felt by Goethe at Palagonia, but it is difficult, not to mention needless, for me to imagine it as anything other than as I experienced it. Paradise Garden offers rest in the shape of a workshop, two contradictory elements that resolve themselves in a specifically situated intimacy. When I said earlier that I had never really been gripped by Finster’s work, I think it must be this matter of intimacy that I missed in those pieces I so often came across. Though direct products of his particular ecstasy, when encountered at a remove from their birthing site each individualized work was for me effectively abstracted from Finster’s labors of proliferation. I had failed to locate the “work” within each painting. Then, by surprise, the work located me. If Finster’s ultimate desire was to create converts, let me be evidence the artist is still at work. Not converted to a metaphysical belief, perhaps, but to a greater appreciation of that belief, its believer, and his creations. And, true, it was not by way of any specific imagery or words, but by visiting our common terrain of extravagant invention that I came to this conversion. The visit isn’t necessary for everyone, of course, but there can be no question of Paradise Garden’s due status as a beacon for anyone needing to stand in another’s “outside himself.” However they may come to it, I am joyed that Finster’s numbers continue to proliferate.
With Heather away on a girls’ trip during the long holiday weekend, Truitt and I made the drive up to North Carolina to let my parents soak up time with their grandson. I managed, also, to sneak away to visit another Truitt: the sculpture Night Wing by Anne Truitt, on display at the Mint Museum in Charlotte.
My son being named for her, it’s likely I think of Anne Truitt more than most other artists. I thought a lot about her before he came along, too, of course, and spent much of the pregnancy re-reading her journals. I return to them continually. I do not, unfortunately, get to spend so much time with her artworks in person. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the feeling of actual giddiness as I paid my admission and asked where the piece was located. I laughed at my own excitement as I hurried to the elevator.
Night Wing is, basically, a column of wood gone over with acrylic paint. It measures 72”h x 12”w x 12”d. It registers to the eye as a violet monochrome. It is easy enough to describe it in this banal way. Such a description, of course, belies the work’s presence, to say nothing of the patience and laborious determination required to create it. But how can I describe the shock I felt at first seeing it from afar? In that instant all my giddiness evaporated. Truitt’s works are not objects of the “what you see is what you see” variety. They are rooted in memory and intuition, in a kind of ever-fleeting episteme which must nevertheless assert itself. Her shapes appeared before her fully formed, arriving as unexpected visions. Her colors were often worked out in "rough facsimiles,” color being a more slippery thing to translate from the mind into the world. But there was no need to force ideas, only to be aware. As easy-going as this may sound, it is a precarious balancing act for an artist, bound to bring frustration and disappointment all the while demanding constant openness and vulnerability. Now I was standing in the presence of one of these hard won visions made physical. A new feeling then took me by surprise: assurance.
Anne Truitt’s works negotiate a space between epiphany and contemplation. Even if we are barred from sharing in the precise memory that was for her linked to such a work as Night Wing, we share in the general experience of memory itself, of unexpected memories, of our interactions with them in all their myriad manifestations. But one must be receptive to this. Like anything, epiphany and contemplation are aided by being regularly practiced. I considered this as, over the course of nearly two hours, I watched museum patrons come and go, most seeming to barely register Night Wing and favoring instead the dancing stripes of Gene Davis’s Jack-in-Box or the electric vibrato of Richard Anuszkiewicz’s Soft Orange. Many people passed by in pairs, and, pausing for a moment before one of these pieces, would quietly comment on its effect—an invariably immediate effect.
I’ve read somewhere, I believe in Arden Reed’s Slow Art, that the average time a viewer spends with an artwork is between six and ten seconds. I have no way to verify this, but I accept it as verified for me at least anecdotally. We want to see everything a museum has to offer, what catches the eye most rapidly takes precedent, and at heart we are true believers that information grants knowledge as quickly as we can receive it. It isn’t for me to say that one way of navigating a museum or gallery is better or worse than any other. I was struck, however, by the apparent uniformity of movements around me. Why was I compelled to lean, walk to and from, squat, crawl, and sit with this single work? I did not want to be that man Truitt describes in Turn: “He had all the relish of a casually greedy person with a tasty tidbit in view; he was on his way to gulp down my life with as little consideration as he would an artichoke heart.” Still, yes, I wanted to see the bit of dust there, and the light play across the layers of subtly shifting colors. I wanted to take in the light those colors seemed in turn to emit. I wanted to catch glimpses of the horizontal and vertical strokes she alternated, sanding each one down until a final, perfectly smooth surface emerged. I wanted to glide over that surface. I wanted look underneath, to see the recessed base, to witness how such a simple little thing can make this column of wood float, hovering just as it might have in that instant when the piece occurred to her. Yet above all I wanted to share with this sculpture memories for which there are no words.
And all of these things I did. I thought of my son, I thought of my wife, I thought of my parents, I thought of many friendships, I thought of my own art, of others’ art, of art in general, of utterly random moments, and, of course, I thought of Anne Truitt herself. I thought, also, of nothing. For timeless stretches I was simply there. It occurs to me only now that this is essentially the same state I enter into when painting.
So there I sat, staring at Night Wing. Occasionally I noted the whispered conversations or heard excited calls from the adjacent hall to see “the Obama painter” Kehinde Wiley’s Philip the Fair. It occurred to me the extent to which so much in the experience of art is social. There is an undeniable healthfulness in this—so much so that it seems nearly antisocial to excuse oneself from it. But I remained assured by Night Wing. I thought, “It is communal, not social.” I then quickly clarified for myself, “Communion, that’s the word for this.” This act is private enough to render one nearly invisible, and not just to passersby. After all, had there been in another room of the museum someone else communing with an artwork of their own, we could never know of each other's presence.
In point of fact, my fellow museum patrons really existed only at the periphery of my experience with Night Wing, but it is admittedly easier to speak of my juxtaposition with them than to put into words a span of time that, in its most sublime moments, exceeded language. And if I have spoken of Anne Truitt’s works here as “between epiphany and contemplation” and as “communion,” I have done so fully aware that such descriptors evoke the sacred. This is for me something distinct from the religious. The Latin sacer suggests something more akin to “accursed” or “cast out.” In ancient Roman law one so designated could be murdered with impunity but could not be sacrificed in rites of religious ceremony. Somewhat ironically, this status effectively granted the condemned a sovereign existence, freeing him of proscribed obligations to state and society. It is a dramatic metaphor, to be sure, but then I am reminded of a line Truitt wrote in Daybook, “There are murders as subtle as a turned eye.” When the time came, I slowly made my way out of the room, trying to hold Night Wing in view for as long as possible.
The following morning Truitt and I said goodbye to my parents. The drive isn’t a particularly long one for an adult, but is a bit much for a toddler who mostly wants to run and climb about. I tried to time our departure with his nap to save some fussing. Soon enough we were caught in a heavy downpour that brought the highway traffic to a crawl. Glancing in the mirror I saw Truitt was fast asleep. Well, he certainly has assurance in me, doesn’t he? I couldn’t help but smile, a little giddiness creeping back in at how impossibly much I love this child.
No view can be held forever. We simply must be receptive, ever willing to risk the “turned eye,” and recognize our moments of communion when they arise. “People talk as if art were something that you did with your eyes and your brain, but it’s not,” Anne Truitt said in an oral history for the Smithsonian, “It’s something that grows out of a ground.” This ground is inherently difficult to speak to: indeed, it is sacred. At our best, this is what we put at stake when we put art into the world.
Yesterday evening I made an attempt at writing something, anything, to in some way explain myself. A new website design has presented me with a blog function, and I feel game to the possibility it presents. It seemed necessary to introduce things somehow. But, in fact, there simply wasn’t much use in writing, not that way. At the end of an hour everything was struck through.
A bit later, working, I look up. My studio is a small room in our small house, and it is crowded with supplies, with overfull bookshelves, and art on all but one wall. Now I realize that every piece on one of those three art-lined walls is severely cooked. These aren’t my works—that’s what the fourth wall is for—but works I have acquired over the years. I acquired them because I love them and feel a need to care for them. I really ought to level them, I think. And returning my eyes to my work I see that it too has gotten off-kilter. Light playing across the wet surface reveals that things are not going smoothly. This will also have to be leveled.
The piece I’m working on wants very flat color. There is a stillness in its need for flatness. The colors and the space more or less between the colors are, hopefully, all the more consequential for this stillness.
There’s a lot of watching paint dry, when I have the time to sit with it. I like this time of the work. Waiting, I open Leopardi’s Zibaldone at random to a passage describing the pleasure in swiftness, and in swiftness being related to speed. This fills me with apprehension. Living nearly two-hundred years later I find myself less pleased with and more wary of speed. But Leopardi is not wrong. In painting there is real delight in, say, Karel Appel’s frenetic attacks on the canvas, as though entirely guided by instinct and driven by pure animal impulse. I look at my own work and in this moment do not know what to make of it. This is not because of comparison I am making to another artist, but because of a specific quality I have a sudden need to consider. In his entry Leopardi notes he is referencing an earlier thought. I turn back to it. It doesn’t help, but the next entry catches my eye. Citing Periander, Leopardi gives the dictum, “Everything is exercise.” The painting lying before me is still becoming the thing that it is. It is time to get back to work. The thin layer just applied is now dry. I sand it, brush the dust away, and begin applying another coat. This time it works. Flatness is achieved. How did I do it? With just the right brush load and just the right amount of pressure, I moved with enough speed.
Soon I will climb a ladder, spirit level in hand, to straighten out a few pictures. When I come back down I will add another thin layer to this flat little crimson disk. Then for a moment I will sit and watch the paint dry. The hummingbird is also a wild animal.