Three Paintings: Held, Titian, Turner
B/W XI (1968) was recently on view in Al Held: Black and White Paintings at Cheim and Read in New York. Large enough in scale to encompass its viewers, the painting’s black-and-white geometries are striking. Yet its significance lies not only in the stark contrast that lends immediate power to its presence, but also in the subtlety of the oscillating pictorial field, a result of the orthographic projection Held used to construct his forms, which gives the painting duration.
At first glance, Held’s early masterpieces seem matter-of-fact. Then, after a few minutes, as you move around them or your eye shifts its focal plane, the geometric forms begin to pop back and forth. Their initially perceived orientations shift—what was projecting forward inverts, a volume morphs into a void. The movement is relative to your point of view, where are you looking, where are you standing, and what elements enter into your peripheral vision to contextualize your reading of the complex compositions.
I can only imagine it was a well-considered move for Held to begin to work with orthographic projection, or planar geometric projection, as it is also called. At the time, it must have suited his aspirations and limitations, since illusion as a component of painting had been denigrated in a Platonic move that held “flatness” sacred. In an interview with James F. Walker in Artscribe in July 1977, Held confesses, “it sounds sophomoric now, but violating the flatness of that picture plane was a taboo that I was raised with.” For all its philosophical and conceptual rigor, the radical limits of Greenbergian “flatness” left painters with their hands tied behind their backs. Held’s way out was not only ingenious, but it also moved the perception of geometric form in painting from it’s philosophical home in the realm of the absolute and gave it relativity.
A variety of projection systems are standard in architectural rendering, which have an instability that allows their spatial orientation to flip-flop because their actual dimensions remain true in scale. A quick look at B/W XI reveals that all sides of the painted cubes are equal—the front to back dimensions are not foreshortened, as in perspective, in which the sides of a cube and its face differ when measured on the picture plane. What is now commonly known as a Necker cube was first developed nearly two thousand years ago by the Chinese with the intent to paint what was “known to be” and not only what could be seen from a single vantage point—such a conceptually based method of construction allowed Held to puncture the flatness of the picture plane without resorting to the illusionism of perspective. It’s a move he could make at the time.
In the same 1977 interview, Held clarified that he “wasn’t looking for space, but for multiplicity and complexity,” adding that, “the space opened up because it gave me room to put more stuff in.” In a concurrent interview in Art Monthly with Peter Townsend, Held’s statement that “space is really made up of events, energies, marked forms that are relation[al],” points to his interest in the relationships between things as predominating over a focus on things themselves. In all the black-and-white paintings there are forms that undermine and contradict one another as many possible spatial interpretations arise from the vacillations that push form to void, shift cube to polyhedron, or project outward conversely carving a void into the pictorial surface. These shifts can affect the reading of a form’s neighboring geometries, sometimes in ways that are impossible within the terms we understand to operate in three dimensions. The resulting tensions force the reading to shift back to something comprehensible. Held’s use of simple geometric forms in these black-and-white paintings—forms that in and of themselves are not spectacular, yet whose interactions with one another are—allows for the pictorial focus to reside with these unpredictable movements.
Seeing these paintings nearly fifty years after they were made not only underscores their importance in marking a seminal moment in the shift from modernity, but it is also interesting to note that they appear as fresh and affecting today, if not more so, than when they were made. For younger painters whose contact with the taboo of “flatness” is not experiential, the behavior of their artistic predecessors may remain as enigmatic as the movement of Held’s forms before analysis. What remains salient is that in embracing the contradictions of the eternal battle between fixity and flux, Held located not only himself philosophically, but also the Zeitgeist.
The Flaying of Marsyas (1570–76)
Titian’s version of the flaying of Marsyas is among the least gruesome one can find. A quick online search turns up two of Juan de Ribera’s in which the skin is already peeled off the satyr’s leg; several examples of fully flayed engravings; a drippingly bloody version from Luca Giordano; and countless depictions of Marsyas in various states of musculature show-and-tell, mostly displaying his anguish and the brutality of Apollo’s punishment.
Titian ties Marsyas up in velvet bows. The painting’s dominant compositional gesture is not the act of flaying itself, but how Marsyas’s body has been hung, inverted, from a tree. The vertical line made by the tree is reinforced by his torso and anchored where his wrists touch the ground, while his legs are splayed and torqued, creating the painting’s axis and generating its recurring spin. Around Marsyas, various figures assist in the procedure or look at the scene in a way that draws us back to his form. Meanwhile, the flaying in question is performed with unhurried acuity, not because of fetish or uncertainty, but to make a point. Looking at the figure of Marsyas at the Met Breuer with my own head turned upside-down, mimicking his, it seems Apollo’s slowness gives Marsyas time to apprehend the horror of his punishment with clarity—and feel terrified about it—before the sensational clouding of pain.
I first met this painting when it and I were both visiting Rome and I was suffering a tender heart. When nothing will make you feel better, you can look at art with your solitude. In this state, without expectation, my eye was carried by the painting’s loose and dense brushwork. The application is exaltedly free, unconcerned with “unifying the surface,” and Titian was as slow as Apollo in making the painting, working on it for the six years leading up to his death. I saw the painted skin of the surface coming apart, and I was moved by this coincidence of form and content: behind the skin there is blood and then guts, and behind represented objects there is paint and then linen.
In New York in 2016, my mind is more on politics. The myth is short: Marsyas claims he is as good a musician as Apollo and challenges him to a contest; Apollo bests him and skins him to make an example of his insubordination. Titian’s painting is hard to look at because it depicts the naked exercise of authority as violence, because the subject of that violence is aware of what that means symbolically and actually, and because there’s visually no way out.
I am tempted to read The Flaying of Marsyas as a criticism of the torture, but I think that’s incorrect. Titian probably made the painting in support of authority, which is difficult to swallow today, given its striking resemblance to any number of contemporary instances in which institutional power asserts itself as violence including, but obviously not limited to, the US government’s continued sanctioning of both torture and the death penalty, not to mention extrajudicial police killings of people of color.
The strength of Titian’s narrative is in presenting the central characters as complicatedly individual, with particular motivations and attitudes. They also each contribute a different sense of time to the scenario. Apollo’s concentration and self-assurance belies premeditation. Impervious to the flurry of activity around him or to Marsyas’s response, he seems to be enacting the punishment with a pre-existing concept of what it is for, establishing a dominant and timeless value structure in the painting. Marsyas, in his fear, sets a phenomenological stage for a mounting and ultimately unresolvable climax; he maintains the urgent pitch of the painting through anticipation of his own fate. Meanwhile the small dog in the foreground laps up Marsyas’s spilled blood entirely in the present tense, motivated by impulse and comically unaware of the circumstances. And the figure of Midas, the onlooker and judge often seen as Titian’s likeness, bears witness to events as they unfold. Midas’s position in the painting remains the closest to ours, the third-party evaluator stuck to the particular unfolding of the drama, but with an eye toward ethics.
In Ovid’s telling of the Marsyas myth, the satyr remains alive for a while once skinned. His “beating surface” is exposed, his transformation into a giant wound lamented by fellow satyrs, humans, and gods alike. I like the idea of Midas as the stand-in for communal viewership organized around a wound, and that the painting reenacts the wound over and over again. The wound is made by power, but determining the justice of such is an ultimately civic endeavor. This invites participation as to how we can deal with the aftermath of violence; it requires us to know what happened.
Sun Setting Over a Lake (ca. 1840)Laila Pedro
“Wax red and rise bone white”
—Maggie Nelson, “The Latest Winter”
The Met Breuer’s inaugural exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, offers the potential to connect with artists at unexpected moments in their processes. Its subtitle evokes intimacy—a previously unrealized point of access, even communion. The exhibition takes a broad view as to what constitutes “unfinished”: at various points it is taken to mean interrupted, open-ended, misinterpreted, or interactive. In some cases, works seem shoehorned in to fit the theme, while the strongest selections, such as the paintings in the room dedicated to J. M. W. Turner, offer not only rigorous primary-source art-historical information, but also a wholly fresh experience of an artist whose place in the canon is so established that standard interpretations of his work threaten to spill into cliché.
Turner’s impassioned, obsessive looking—inwardness spilled out into light—is distilled in the incomplete works on view here, particularly Sun Setting Over a Lake (ca. 1840). The Turner paintings the Met borrowed from the Tate for the show tend toward the most literal embodiment of “unfinished”—most were found in his studio after his death, their lack of a signature or other typically accepted mark of acknowledged authorship is taken to mean that this most meticulous of painters did not consider them completed works. Turner is caught in the act, the work frozen in time before he could put the gloss of presentation over his own gestures.
In Turner’s completed works, the masterful brushwork has coalesced into a totality of motion and composition—communicating intention, not revealing process. In Sun Setting Over a Lake, we see the mind in the brushwork, and the conceptual ordering of the painting. The broad, nearly smeared slides of white on the right-hand side are big, generous gestures, their sweep drawing us into a tightening spiral that pulls across to the left-hand corner. The setting sun is itself unfinished: a single drip spills over the horizon. It could be the last spill of daylight across the water, an intensively focused stroke whose minuteness belies its centering gravity. Our attention is called to this drip by Turner’s technical construction: the depth perspective begun by the white spiral is fixed by that horizon line, Renaissance-precise behind swirling layers of refracting light.
All of it—the sweeping brushwork, the rigorous perspective, the early traces of Turner’s plays with surface in both content and form (see the beginnings of the rippling water in the foreground, just releasing the sun’s illumination)—come together in the emotional depth of his palette. Absent a central subject, the interplay of light and colors generates an unstable notion of a center itself; instead, the formal elements become the primary visual drivers. Rather than a rigid central structure, we glimpse potential in action—an off-center, vaguely delineated sun in the moment just before it disappears. Unmoored, unanchored, a rush of white sliding into deep orange and pale gold draws our eye inexorably into its own: that stubborn, retreating, singular sun.