Robert Sagerman, Instantiations

A solo exhibition, Philip Slein Gallery


In platonic philosophy, as in much mystical thought and practice, things met with in ordinary experience are not understood to partake of fully bona fide reality; rather, they exemplify - they instantiate - essentialized precursors that exist in their fullness only in an idealized state, inaccessible to conventional apprehension. Such philosophical, abstracted speculation, as well as mystical experience, is aimed at encountering things in this state of perfect alterity, as constituents of the divine world. There was a time when this mode of thinking provided a framework for my understanding of my own chief interests in painting. This conceptual orientation, it seems, fell into place for me from my very first familiarity with color field painting. I saw my art-making as being somehow of a piece with the meditative practices of the medieval Jewish mystics with whom I had become increasingly interested. Most often, I tended to see my paintings as manifestations, within the particular temporal parameters of the mundane world, of what Jewish mystics troped as a kind of perfect divine light, whose efflux into the terrestrial domain was of a continuously shifting variety. This characteristic of the divine overflow, its changeability, these mystics understood as the cause of the impermanence and dynamism prevailing within the experienced world and within human consciousness. If the divine light elaborated upon by these mystics was that which guided my color field painting, then I felt that I had a useful explanation for why each painting could emerge as distinctly different and unto itself while all of my work could nonetheless still share the same over-arching subject matter.

My interest in medieval Jewish mystical practice intensified, culminating eventually in a Ph.D., and some academic publications along the way. Alternating between painting and scholarly work felt incredibly fruitful for me at this time. The particular modalities pursued by the mystics whom I studied were deeply creative; within this tradition, insights were elicited from texts within carefully delineated hermeneutical parameters, resulting in many centuries of accumulated literary production. An ever more deeply investigated systematization of the divine realm had emerged over many generations of thinkers and practitioners. Within this process of creative delineation, the bringing forth of meaning out of textuality was taken by its interpreters as tantamount to the encounter with the divine; coming into a deepening understanding of the transcendent was not merely intellective but fully experiential, a type of communion. As a student, I was preoccupied with exploring the literary byproducts of this process, because within this mode of mystical practice, retracing the path that led to the composition of a mystical text and coming into the understanding laid out by its author was itself seen to be a replication of the mystical encounter preserved in the text's pages. These kinds of experiences felt equivalent to those I would sometimes undergo while painting, and they opened up ever fresh avenues for understanding my own work.

It was around this time in my academic exploration of Jewish mysticism that I began to study the Renaissance Italian mystical tradition and its intersections with art. Renaissance Italian thinkers and artists were in many cases deeply, explicitly influenced by earlier Jewish mystical production. I came to focus on the contemporary theologians likely historically responsible for conceptualizing the Sistine Chapel Ceiling program, and I began to perceive that the Ceiling program represented a systematization of the divine realm derived from earlier mystical texts. Those theologians responsible for the Ceiling program had aimed to create a framework by which Michelangelo might reproduce, by visual means, the insights encoded within the traditional Jewish mystical literature. The Ceiling program aimed to induce the same encounter with the divine that the earlier texts' authors intended to induce from the literary recapitulation of their hermeneutical processes. In time, the composition of the Ceiling's The Separation of Light from Darkness (see image), in particular, came to stand for me as both a visual and a conceptual model for my own work. The panel represents, within the overall Ceiling program, the earliest depicted moment of Creation, and in an important sense it seems given over to the very theme of creative action itself; out of a swirling maelstrom of unrealized, potential existence, other art historians had already observed, God may be understood in the scene to be extracting and manifesting his own self. He seems to be engaged in the quintessentially important act of auto-creation. For several years now, the compositional swirls and undulations of my own paintings have all hearkened back to and been given a point of orientation by this one Ceiling panel above all.

A closer identification with this panel's content has signaled an important change for me more recently. Over the years my interests have shifted away from the complex systematizations of the divine that are the literary results of mystical investigations, and they have come to center more on the mystical interpretive dynamic itself, that is, on the hermeneutical methodologies harnessed by these mystics, which gave rise to the creative ferment that so enlivened their experience. By analogy, Modernism in American art may similarly be understood to represent a redirection from the traditional upholding of the visual creative product toward an emphasis upon the internal processes occurring within the artist, from which the artwork results as a kind of residue. As both a student of mysticism and as an abstract artist working in the wake of Modernism, I felt doubly subject to these types of currents. The notion of the subject's coming into self-cognizance through the creative act, as exemplified in The Separation of Light from Darkness, had become central for me. Such processes occur in the studio for the artist from moment to moment, as consciousness constantly shifts, much in the manner of the divine light that had captured my imagination years before. In The Separation of Light from Darkness, God seems to be poised at the very cusp of self-creation, captured in a crucial moment. The compositions of my own paintings have borrowed something of this feeling of a moment of coalescence, of a coming-into-being, a formative moment held in suspense through a work process that runs into months.

These days, my work no longer stands for me as manifestations or instantiations of the transcendent, as delineated by the mystics whom I studied. Rather, my emphasis has shifted toward the immediacy of the harnessing of a flow of creativity, one in keeping with the same sorts of hermeneutical processes, and within similar conceptual frameworks, as those of the mystics with whom I had always felt such an affinity. This shifted focus has heightened my awareness of the distinctive fabric of each moment of consciousness that arises and falls away during my work practice. Today I place greatest emphasis while at work in the studio upon the phenomenology of experienced, synthesized color rendered material, upon the temporal rootedness of such fleeting impressions, and upon the place of the moment of production and decision-making within a wider, ongoing progression of decisions, the awareness of which forms the basis of an encompassing, lived aesthetic milieu. The sense of an extended encounter with the deeply personal indeed with its auto-creation, self from self as well as with its mirror, the transcendent, prevails during my studio practice. My work today reads for me as instantiations in the sense of the indexing of moments, of instances, within a continual stream.