high and low

by Donald Kuspit

for every high
                  there's a low,
and below
             more suffering,
the highs lower,
                        the lows higher,
in between the mirth
                            of the mystery,
high and low blending
                             in the blur,
unfathomable memories
                             in its mist,
i stranded
              at its dead center,
the unmoved mover
                         of my misery.

beloved 8

by Donald Kuspit

discreet as dew
                   on newborn feelings,
you soothe me
                 into silence,
refreshing meaning.
                           your calm
is my clarity,
                  the rambling words
cleared away,
                 the underbrush
of nuance
the boldness
                of meaning
                 by the unconscious.
steadfast in mind,
with certainty,
                   you abide,
glistening with light,
in crystal conviction.
at last,
            i can wonder again,
see the morning star,
                             you outlasting
the end.

beloved 7

by Donald Kuspit

agree to disagree
                     that mind unfold
its wings,
              carrying us beyond the eye
to the sun
          inside the shadow,
the halo of your hair
through the darkest
                       of our thoughts,
you and i       
         at odds in mind
yet merged in ancient
mythically illimitable
                          and loving,
our minds finally meeting
                             in wonder
at its wisdom.
                  suffering banished
by a smile,
               its luminosity
restoring innocence,
                        memories at last
at peace,
             cinders of consciousness
in the hadean

beloved 6

by Donald Kuspit

let us imagine
                       that we’re unimaginable,
mirages meeting
                           in myth,
uplifted by enigma
                             into the night sky
of memory,
                  then our love will be boundless
because fleshless,
                         then we will be constellations
as luminous as gods.
                             no longer in need of fate
to meet,
            we will last as long as they do.
we will forget
                         the fickleness of feeling,
we will no longer
                         need theories
to rationalize our trust,
                                    our senses
will speak the truth
                             of our togetherness
even when our bodies
                                    are separate.
intimacy will suspend death
                                          when our love
is consummated
                        in our unconscious.

beloved 5

by Donald Kuspit

love rises like a phoenix
                                     from the ashes of absence,
spreading its wings
                           in renewed surprise,
riding the wind
                   to the rapturous heights,
where the sun
                 in your smile never sets,
darkness ousted
                   by luminous passion,
the fire burning
                        undimmed by distance.
fly with me beyond words,
                                 the ashes of memory,
fly beyond sun and moon
                               to the mythical stars,
where we will form
                          our own constellation,
haunting the infinite
                             with our intimacy,
the phoenix no longer
                             in need of death to live.

Beginning Nature Again: Joe Danciger’s Landscape Paintings

by Donald Kuspit

If the waves crash up against the beach, eroding dunes and destroying houses, it is not the awesome power of Mother Nature. It is the awesome power of Mother Nature altered by the awesome power of man, who has overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born.
Bill McKibben, The End of Nature

…the seemingly fortuitous disorder of landscape-form hides the inevitability of nature.
Max J. Friedländer, Landscape Portrait Still-Life

Why paint nature these days? There’s only one reason: it’s at an end. One paints it to begin it again: art always begins with nature, and now that nature is near its end, art can re-start it, so to speak—make it speak from its death-bed, even bring it back to life the way Christ brought Lazarus back to life, or at least give it a decent burial. Or, better yet, find its forgotten backwaters, the isolated spaces in which it still flourishes, holdouts against increasingly encroaching civilization, so-called. Its unnatural urban environment, nominally fit for life but lifeless in itself, dismisses nature as beside the social point, valuable only if it can be exploited, used and abused. Its decorative remains are ghettoized in parks, or left to fester on sidewalks, bushes and trees lining urban streets, distracting from their barren anonymity. We cultivate and cherish plants and flowers in our houses and gardens, supporting their lives as though to support our own, unconsciously realizing and compensating for the feeling that we were not adequately, let alone properly, cultivated, cherished, and supported—nourished–by society. Such cared for, “civilized” plants and flowers serve a therapeutic, narcissistic purpose, but they are not as hardy as plants and flowers that grow in the wild, where they are more assertively alive, having to hold their own against the elements. One has to go into the wilderness—whatever is left of it–to find the truth of nature, and with that escape its falsification in society. In the raw nature is authentic, refined it is oddly inauthentic, even artificial—all too artful.

Joe Danciger does that: retreating from society in a proverbial return to nature—but now a nature that can be seen and known only in fragments, in piecemeal form, haunted and marred by signs of human presence and power, unlike, say, the fulsome nature the Fontainebleue Forest painters idolized, devoting themselves to it as the embodiment of Mother Nature herself, seen whole and intact, uncontaminated by humankind. Nature can no longer be romanticized—it is too tainted—as John Constable did: it can only be “real-ized.” Nor can the emotions one instantly invests in it be as violent as those of Caspar David Friedrich. Nature can no longer be inflated by feeling–its inevitability is all that’s left of it. With a kind of clear-eyed detachment, Danciger returns us to its origin in inevitable change, reminds us of its capacity to begin again and again, never end in a cycle of seasonal, physical change indifferent to human concerns and feelings, and slowly but surely ridding itself of any signs of human presence, burying them the way the snow buries the tow path in his painting of a Sycamore on the Tow Path, 2011.

It is a winter scene, the majestic tree is desiccated—almost leafless and blanched, as though dead, yet uncannily alive, as its twin trunks and wildly spreading branches suggest. The bits of leaf remaining on it are yellowish, as though tinted by sunlight, and the trunks are rooted in brown soil: nourished by the sun and the earth, fresh leaves will grow on the tree, making it more glorious. It has a figural presence, but there are no human figures in the scene, only the tow path, cut like a scar into the earth, as its sunken character suggests. More to the point of the picture, at least as I see it, snow almost completely covers the man-made tow path, as though nature was trying to eliminate it, at least make it difficult to use, implying that human beings have no place in nature, certainly not welcome in the wilderness. The same message is implicit in Gallows Run in Winter, 2013, with its small path, stale and dull with mud, pushed aside by the rushing water of the run, moving much more swiftly than the plodding path, passively present but beside the point of nature and its constant activity.

Trees, now lush with green—the season is now summer–all but hide the house in Tow Path in August, 2013. Man-made constructions—mechanical bridges and umbrellas—appear in Black Eddy Bridge and Landscape with Two Red Umbrellas, both 2015, but the bridges are absorbed into nature by way of their green color and the flaming red umbrellas become gorgeous flowers in full blossom. Lively nature triumphs over inert human inventions—a triumph of life over death, more particularly of the organic over the mechanical. The difference and struggle between them is emblematic of the difference and struggle between the “open system” organic and “closed system” robotic models of human being. According to Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the developer of systems theory, it is a conflict over our self-definition that will decide our fate. Dacinger is clearly in open rebellion against the closed mechanical model of life and art—completely rejects Constructivist machine-model type of art as his organic painterliness, with its expressionistic vitality, evoking the vitality of nature, indicates. Nature for him is not a robot at our command, but a body that changes with the seasons of life, just as the human body does. The struggle between organic expressionist “bodily” type art and inorganic mechanical “anti-body” type art is basic to modern art.

Danciger is not on the tow path, but on its side, like the untamable sycamore, and as silently intense as it: unconsciously identifying with it–it surges with instinctive energy, suggesting that it is a symbol of the instinctive energy, implicit in his brisk brushstrokes, he brings to art-making (their quixotic turbulence mirrors the wildly growing tree)–he becomes part of nature, as solitary as the tree, and as innocently alive. I could not help thinking of Thoreau’s remark: “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” But then the sycamore is Danciger’s companion. He is not projecting any particular feeling onto the tree, but rather mirroring its dynamic, restless, changing form in his dynamic, restless, ever-changing handling. Only an artist sure of his own vitality would venture into this oddly utopian wilderness—a desolate nowhere, reminding us that utopia is a hope-filled nowhere.

Technically the tow path leads us into the distance—puts the scene into perspective—but the sky flattens to the canvas, acknowledging it in a modernist manner, while the wild growth in the middle ground, with its richly textural tangle of branches, finesses that flatness, suggesting the implicit abstractness of the picture. It can in fact be read as a study in blues—airy light blue in the sky, watery dark blue on the earth—and brownish yellows, with the few completely dead growths accenting their presence with blackness. Light is everywhere, indeed, the sycamore seems made of light, giving it a ghostly aura. The medium may not be all for Danciger—after all, he’s representing an external observed reality—as the modernist critic Clement Greenberg argued it is for an abstract painter, but he is clearly a master of it, as his vigorous painterliness indicates.

I think of Danciger’s landscapes as reparative: he wants to repair a nature that has been damaged—certainly soul murdered–by human beings. He searches out untouched-by-human-hands nature—the raw nature in Purple Marsh, 2013 and Ice and Wild Rice, 2014, among other works, all-site specific (generally in over-populated New Jersey or Pennsylvania)—taking its pulse with his artistic hands, confirming that it is alive and well, and undisturbed. He comes across these places as though by accident, as On the Road to Sea Breeze, 2015 suggests. He has painted scenic places near the Delaware River, which divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania, and adjoins Philadelphia, where he lives. He is clearly more intimately at home in such rural places than in urban Philadelphia, which, as far as I know, he has never painted. He has particularly painted where land and water meet, suggesting a fusion of opposites, or at least their comfortable togetherness. Early landscape painting, from Joachim Patinir to Albrecht Altdorfer, always had some sign of human
presence, as though to suggest that nature was manageable and orderly if not completely under control. In Altdorfer’s great Danube School painting, Saint George Slaying the Dragon, 1510—they’re positioned at the bottom of a dense forest of tall trees with seemingly eternally green leaves systematically arranged—the dragon the saint is slaying is implicitly the daemonic spirit of the surrounding nature. Nature, however seductively beautiful, remains a threat: after all, the dragon is the snake that tempted Eve enlarged to monstrous, grotesque proportions. But nature has been all but conquered and enslaved in modernity—or so we think—which is why there is no need for a masterful human being in Danciger’s landscapes. He is alone with its inconsequential traces, suggesting they are a new beginning of nature, even as he memorializes them.

Writing about the landscape painting that they saw in “The Salon of 1859” in Paris, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt declared that “landscape is the victor of modern art. It is the pride of nineteenth century painting.” They noted that “when nature is condemned to death, when industry dismembers it, when iron roads plough it, when it is violated from one pole to another, when the city invades the fields, when industry pens it in…that the human spirit hastens towards nature, looks at it as it never has before, sees this eternal mother for the first time….Will landscapes become a resurrection, the Easter of the eyes?” Landscape painting seems to have had its day in the 20th century, and seems beside the point of the 21st century, with its relentless technologization of society, but people still hasten to nature, as the tourists in the national parks and the people who camp in what is left of the wilderness show. But nature is more tightly penned in than ever, exists in a sort of solitary confinement, although one can no longer be alone with it, as the crowds that flock to gaze at it, in search of a numinous, uplifting experience, suggest. Danciger, determined to preserve what remains of pure nature, makes pure landscapes, that is, landscapes unsullied by signs of human presence. Those that appear are drained of human import, as I have suggested, that is, “naturalized.” Danciger has resurrected landscape painting, making it a feast for the eyes, but it is no longer the Easter of the eyes, but rather a sort of child taking its first steps, beginning to walk, not quite on its own, for it needs Danciger to hold it up, to keep it moving.

Art As Healing Magic: Hans Breder’s Chakras

by Donald Kuspit


…the survival of the magic power of the work of sculptors and painters has often been reflected in their social position on the fringe of society in a “bohemian” reservation.
Ernst Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art

Art has long been understood as a kind of magical, wishful thinking, and it is no more magically wishful—and hopeful–than when it is made in the desperate belief that it is healing, above all that it can heal the suffering body, or at least anesthetize both viewer and artist to its pain.  I think this is the motivation behind the idealization of the body in classical art, and I think it is the motivation of Hans Breder’s Mindscape/The Subtle Body, a video installation in the window of the small, hip Solivagant Gallery on Orchard Street in Lower Manhattan.  This “fringe” area is the latest au courant bohemian reservation of exhibition spaces, as the 80+ galleries there indicate, replacing the now all-too-fashionable (and pricey), and with that passé, gallery area of Chelsea.  Freud said that magical thinking involves a belief in the omnipotence of thoughts—the grandiose, narcissistic, infantile conviction that one’s inner thoughts could control outer reality (even change it, as though the serious intensity of one’s thoughts had social revolutionary effect)—but however immature and unrealistic magical thinking is, we all engage in it, for without it we would lose our will to live.

Hans Breder Opening

Hans Breder Opening

And we cannot live without our bodies:  Breder’s art has always dealt with the body, as his famous photographs of mirrored nudes indicates, and his current exhibition also does, as its theme—the seven chakras—makes clear.  “Chakra” is a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel.”  As the scholars Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant write, it is “applied to the hidden meeting points of the nadis or channels of the ‘subtle’ body, along which, according to Hindu physiology, the vital energy flows.  This mystical physiology sets these energy centers at intervals up the spinal column to the top of the head, and they could be described as ‘generators of etheric matter’ (avas).  From the base of the spine (the muladhara), kundalini, a static form of creative energy may be roused.”  The whole purpose of Breder’s exhibition is to rouse this creative energy from the base of the spine (the coccyx, the last bone in the spine)—the Base or Root Chakra—to the top of the head (implicitly the brain)—the Crown Shakra.  The passage, in which the creative energy becomes ever more dynamic and manifest, ascends vertically up the body, healing—energizing and enabling–each part it is associated with and flows through.  As the creative energy surges through it, it comes to everlasting healthy life.  Thus the Sacral Chakra maintains the health of the ovaries/prostrate it “informs”; the Solar Plexus Chakra, associated with the navel area, keeps it functioning “creatively”; the Heart Chakra keeps that organ healthy and beating; the Throat Chakra keeps the throat and neck area healthy; the Brow or Third Eye Chakra, associated with the pineal gland (for Descartes the seat of the soul), enables the mind’s eye to see insightfully. There are seven chakras; Breder’s installation devotes a day to each.  Seven is a number rich in symbolism; there are seven heavens, according to mystical thinking, and seven colors associated with each, and they can all be seen by the “perfect man,” that is, the visionary mystic.  Breder aspires to be one, and succeeds in becoming one, as his installation suggests.  He has said he is concerned to capture the “luminal moment of perception”—the moment when unimaginative observation becomes imaginative apperception. His early photographs use the mirror to do so, the current installation uses a more refined method, digital video, to do so.

Breder has always been obsessed with the female body, and the female body continues to appear in his chakras installation, but now in fleeting, fragmentary form.  It quickly dissolves in the creative flux of his rapidly changing “chakratized” forms, all kaleidoscopically abstract and colorful.  In the early black and white photographs the female bodies and the mirrors that reflect them are asymmetrically and precariously arranged in a kind of static or stopped pin-wheel.  In the chakras installation the wheel moves very rapidly and rhythmically, sometimes vibrating with unsettling intensity, sometimes peculiarly soothing.  But the wheel, whirling like an ecstatic dervish, never loses its balance:  the forms are dynamically equilibrated, to use Mondrian’s famous term.  They are also driven by what Kandinsky called internal necessity—intense feeling, above all, in Breder’s case, a feeling for the body.  Mondrian and Kandinsky are Breder’s ancestors:  his work has the same transcendentalist aspiration as theirs.  Indeed, it is the grand climax of the tradition of transcendental abstraction.

Mindscape in C

Mindscape in C

The influence of Malevich is also evident:  the compact square, iconic in more ways than one, often appears, slowly changing into an auratic circle in the course of the chakras.  Squares are often symmetrically aligned in groups of four, as though in homage to Albers.  Breder’s installation recapitulates, in dream-like condensation, the history of high abstraction, just as it recapitulates, in dream-like condensation, the history of his own early photographs, for the female figures that flicker across the screen are all echoes of the figures in them.  Each of the chakras is accompanied by music—often a high pitched hum, a relentlessly vibrating tone, forcing itself into one’s nerves–that Breder has composed on a computer.  Indeed, his chakras are computer-generated and computer-performed.  The sounds of a piano, trombone, and Tibetan singing bowl are digitalized and ingeniously integrated electronically.  Breder says the geometrical forms and the music forms are symmetrically arranged, that is, the image and the sound vibrate at the same frequency.  The symmetry is maintained even as the audiovisual pulsating forms constantly change, disintegrate and re-integrate into gestalt wholes.  Fragments symmetrically align even as they seem asymmetrically odds, and remain dynamically different even as they stabilize into holistic forms.  Performed, each chakra seems to be informed by some enigmatic élan vital, made manifest by the changing image and the piercing music. Breder, the founder of the intermedia program at the University of Iowa, is known for his techno-aesthetic sophistication, not to say neo-artistic wizardry.  Breder, a German-American painter, photographer, sculptor, and videographer, has been celebrated for his “phonetically merged, imagedsound fusion,” involving the use of “digital feedback.”  He conceives of the chakras as a transmedial fugues played on a computer.  “Transmediation,” he says, is an “opening to meditation.”  Digitalization is “dematerialization,” he notes; for him it also means spiritualization, when carried out with aesthetic sophistication, emotional intelligence, technocratic know-how.  One is invited to meditate on the works as you see them—they are meant to put one in a meditative state (they certainly are “en-trancing”)—but, I have to say, this was difficult to do, for they were exhibited, surrounded by mirrors that reflected the viewer, in the window of the storefront gallery on a very busy Orchard Street.  On the opening night the street and galleries were packed with people.  The street is always “busy” with noise—the sound of traffic and shoppers (the galleries are small shops, like the clothing shops and cafes near nearby)—which is not exactly an environment conducive to meditation, let alone to careful attention to serious art.  But Breder wants outreach—wants to leave the bohemian reservation, wants to offer spiritual nourishment and enlightenment to the passing masses, just as Buddha did.

Mindscape in F

Mindscape in F

The chakras works proclaim that he is a Bodhisattva, that is, a person who has attained prajna, or Enlightenment, and thus can finally leave the perpetually turning wheel of death and reincarnation—the cycle of suffering that is life and death–but has decided to postpone Nirvana in order to help others attain Enlightenment.  It is an act of compassion, which is what Breder’s hyperactive chakras are:  they are meant to enlighten us about the body and soul–to show the soul in the body, to show that the material body is a transient, even specious form of the soul.  They are in effect his last artistic will and testament, a consummate spiritualizing gift to the world.  Being moved by them—swept along in their swift, earnest current–is an enlightening experience.

But the technical brilliance of Breder’s chakras is a means to a therapeutic end, as he himself says.  When he made the mirror photographs he was in the prime of his youth and in good health; his female models/performers are full-bodied, healthy-looking young women.  They seem invulnerable; sometimes mirrored in the running water of a spring, they become lyrically natural—virginal nymphs.  They were his muses, and with that surrogates for his creative self.  But now they have become more myth than substance:  Breder is now eighty, and suffering from cancer.  His body has weakened, although his energy—the energy with which he makes art–is still amazing.  As he has said, he wants to use it to attempt to magically cure his cancer.  The chakras works are a sort of “white magic,” as their stunning luminosity suggests—it “enlightens” and at times overwhelms the colors–meant to oust the “black magic” of cancer.  He wants to heal his suffering body by becoming enlightened about the sources of its energy in the hope of eternally renewing them.  For him the energy not the body is eternal.  It may be a futile effort, but Breder’s chakras works are a tour de force demonstration of the omnipotence of artistic thought, not to say its mystical wisdom at its best.

trees i

by Donald Kuspit

trees ascend faster fuller
                                  fresher freer
than thoughts,
                  decay slower,
leaves dying
            in a painterly blaze
of fullblown color,
                           thoughts colorless
at birth and death,
                           falling as they rise,
the squalor of consciousness
                                    in their conception,
trees conceived
                   in unconscious earth
sturdier than time,
                           upright in eternity.

ascending until
                   there is no more ascending,
attended by the sky,
                            measureless clouds
the halo on their nakedness,
before the angels,
                      enjoyed by the gods.
thoughts abject
                   before them,
bowing to their pride,
                              fading into flimsiness
as trees burst into fullness,
                                     thoughts parochial
and sapless,
                trees universal with inexhaustible sap.

blurred in the text
                           of time,
thoughts the waste matter
                                     of wonder,
trees wonder incarnate,

trees ii

by Donald Kuspit

what's left to inspire,
                               all the gods ground
to dust, the heights leveled,
meaning itself meaningless.
                                   emotion of enigma
impossible in the clarity
                             of the banal,
triumphant over thought
                               and passion alike,
                         in the ruling indifference.

you alone remain to inspire,
                                    haunting the outposts
of memory, flourishing
                          in forests of forgetten
feelings, growing in the ruins
                                      of cloistered
                  glorious in the invisible wind
on the mountains of myth.
                                 outlasting all words,
lingering in the unexplored silence,
the horizon of hope,
                            you measure the immeasurable
with your uprightness,
                              nature timeless
once again in fantasy
                             as it never was in reality.

trees iii

by Donald Kuspit

not as deeply rooted
                            as you,
not as beholden
                   to the sun,
the moon my infinity,
                             the darkness
my method,
              i also need the sky,
ascend to the unplaceable,
in clouds
             of consciousness,
shifting shape
                  with every blink,
my eye bound
                to the boundless
as your peak
                is bound to the plenitude,
              in the inevitable emptiness
that surrounds
                  the enigma,
bounds us both
                  to the earth,
toiling upward
                  until there is only down,
awaiting our decay,
                           the fall
into memory,
                relieved at last
from the heights,
                     for striving
for the inconceivable
                             once called heaven.