Communicating why another artist’s work matters—to me, or anyone else—forces me to flex the same muscles that I use to discern the germ within the husk of my painting habit. Art, if it deserves the name, demands that I meet it on its own terms, where I least expect it: at the margins, in the interstices, in the places I thought I knew and consequently ignored. My acid test for whether I have made a real encounter with art is the surge of energy I feel when I have connected with it. In both my painting and my writing, this revelation comes through small increments that on rare occasions bloom into a new way of being in the world.
In the spring of my freshman year at college, I experienced just such a flowering, which cemented my ambition to become a painter. I had the good fortune to take a painting class with Elizabeth Murray. She had been pushing me, with the formidable force of her personality, to work on a painting well past the time I thought I should have been finished with it. For about a month, I had been steadily building up the surface of this abstract painting, playing a little game with myself in making a map of random shapes with only three colors: red, green, and black. One Saturday, when I should have been out enjoying the good May weather, I was in the classroom alone, working on a passage in the center of the painting where the three colors were jostling each other in a complex interface. At a node where the three colors came together, I suddenly felt a stream of energy, like a puff of wind, pushing against my face. It felt like a prickling sensation on my upper lip. The closer I came to the node, the stronger the sensation. I then noticed other nodes of energy in the painting, all in places where I had built up boundaries connecting the three colors. It dawned on me this painting had come alive in some way, and its energy was arcing across the gap that separated us.
I experienced another kind of flowering when I reviewed Joan Snyder’s paintings for an exhibition titled Sub Rosa, at Franklin Parrasch Gallery in 2015. I had followed Snyder’s work since my college days. It was a known quantity to me, or so I thought. To this day, rereading my review, I feel a pilot light—to borrow Nabokov’s metaphor in his essay on Lolita—reigniting the sensations that built up over the course of writing that piece. I remember the space, a converted townhouse on the Upper East Side, that, unlike the sterility of a typical Chelsea white box gallery, lent an intimacy to the paintings. There were the paintings with their eloquent surfaces, bone-white grounds dominated by Snyder’s signature “roses,” vortices of alizarin and deep violet painted with thick, wet strokes. And there was the catalog copy written by Snyder, discussing the death and mourning of an unnamed loved one. In it, she explains that the Latin phrase Sub Rosa literally means “under the rose,” said flower placed above ancient Roman partygoers as an injunction to silence about whatever happened during the festivities. Themes of mourning and celebration in Snyder’s paintings and words created an affect so powerful, so true to the absurdity of being a sentient being that loves and dies, that my writing was an effortless transfer of thought to the page. Again, here was an energy transfer telling me that Snyder’s work had connected with my world on a level I would have never anticipated.
In our consumer economy, it’s all too easy to fall prey to the spectacle of art as entertainment. But the point of art is not to distract us but to charge us: to reveal the unexpected, to take us to a place we haven’t been before, to communicate what cannot be articulated in any other way. By that definition, art is a rare thing. I have only felt that energetic connection a handful of times, but that’s enough.