A New Sacred Space: Michael Somoroff’s Illumination I by Donald Kuspit


When love has carried us above all things...we receive in peace the Incomprehensible Light, enfolding us and penetrating us.  What is this Light, if it not be a contemplation of the Infinite, and an intuition of Eternity?

Jan van Ruysbroeck


...the chief psychological characteristic of all normal mystical development...consists in the effort to establish a new equilibrium, to get, as it were, a firm foothold upon transcendent levels of reality.

Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism:  A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness

          First Mosque Sketch


To “see the  light,” to emerge at last from the so-called “Dark Night”:  this is what Michael Somoroff’s Illumination I embodies.  Whether it be understood as the darkness and ignorance that prevail in the Platonic cave, or the painful “impotence, blankness, solitude” experienced by the soul “immersed in this dark fire of purification,” (1) the point is the same:  how to escape the intellectual and emotional suffering—for cognition and affect can be as little separated as psyche and soma—the darkness represents.  The only way to do so is to “see the light”—to escape the cave of the unconscious and emerge into the light of consciousness, to purge oneself of the immobilizing darkness of self-negation and discover the living light in oneself—indeed, the light without which one would not be alive. “Stagnation of intellect” and “inhibition of the will” disappear, opening the way to fresh new life and self-respect—a new sense of being true to oneself and spontaneously alive, and with that an unshakable feeling of authenticity.

It is a “conversion experience” that may be once in a lifetime, but hopefully will last for all time—will radically change one’s perspective on life, one’s basic attitude to one’s own life as well as that of other human beings.  Erich Fromm regards the “need for transcendence” as one of the basic existential needs, conceiving it humanistically as “a need to transcend one’s self-centered, narcissistic, isolated position to one of being related to others, to openness to the world, escaping the hell of self-centeredness and hence self-imprisonment.”(2)  Paradoxically, to see the light in oneself is to transcend “being merely created,” which means to come into one’s spiritual own, that is, become authentically human, a self open to the world of others—a self seeing the light of the spirit in others.  They also are capable of becoming authentically human, that is, transcending their isolating narcissism and seeing the light in themselves, finding their true selves through a conversion experience.

Somoroff’s Illumination I proposes it to them—surprises them with it.  Sited outside the Rothko Chapel, home to famous paintings by a famous painter, Illumination I is at odds with their darkness.  It “realizes” the light for the spectator, represents the moment of his or her inner illumination, of “seeing the light” that is immaterial but that has been made material—literalized, as it were—in Somoroff’s work.  It rises upward, slowly but inevitably ascending, unlike the flat paintings fixed in place on the chapel’s walls, conveying the “breakthrough” into the light that is every human being’s birthright.  Whether they exercise it or not is another question.  Whether the spectator will take spiritual advantage of Somoroff’s work, cognitively and emotionally interact with it in recognition that it is a spiritual opportunity, whether it will give the spectator a spiritual shock (and not simply because it is new, certainly compared to the Rothko paintings, made a half century earlier), whether it will catalyze a conversion or transcendental experience, is another matter.




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Per Contra Winter 2006-2007