“On and On: Inquiries into Indeterminacy”
Gallery Symposium: May 15, 2009
© Robert Sagerman, All Rights Reserved, 2009
The desire to integrate two fields of endeavor motivates my talk today. One is the academic study of Jewish mysticism, and the other is painting. In my own mind these two fields have always been two sides of the same coin. They inform each other, and each, I have found, opens the way for insights into the other. In my practical experience, however, they usually remain quite distinct, except in an artist statement that I write or in an occasional conversation that I might have. So my gratitude goes to Margaret Thatcher for allowing this forum to take place. My thanks go as well to Michael Amy and Mary Birmingham for their indispensable perspectives.
I’ve been thinking about today’s two rather different talks, Michael Amy’s and my own, in terms of the issue of artistic intentionality. It can be beneficial for a viewer to have an artist’s input into the interpretive process, but that input can be obtrusive as well. For me it is crucial that my work stand on its own, without my needing to mediate meaning or content. For this reason, the formalistic element of my work is central. Minimal abstraction, if that is what my work is, possesses an ambiguity that leaves much room for legitimate interpretation. It is before I’ve begun to discuss my own thoughts about my work that I often hear the most interesting remarks from others. The viewer’s unmediated experience before the artwork is irreplaceable. When these impressions come from someone as sophisticated and equipped to grapple with the work as is Michael, I count myself fortunate. Having first heard what Michael has to say, then, it’s now an appropriate time to discuss how I view my own work.
The nature of my painting propelled me into the study of Jewish mysticism around fifteen years ago. I’ll begin to elucidate this connection by first saying some words about medieval Jewish mysticism. Kabbalists, or Jewish mystics, emphasized that underlying the perceptible world, ultimately, was “no-thing.” I avoid the word “nothing” in favor of the more awkward “no-thing” because of the former’s inappropriately nihilistic implications. Medieval Jewish mystics were not nihilists or atheists in any sense. They posited the presence of imperceptible echelons to the divine world, each possessing specific attributes. Beyond these spheres of the divine world, the source of all things was a “no-thing.” Abiding beyond any attribute, it encompassed all of them, yet no attribute could appropriately be applied to it. It was observed that the very application of an attribute or of a characteristic to this “no-thing” was thought to be a delimitation, to be the application of a stricture utterly inappropriate to that which was understood to be infinite, that is, not finite, in every conceivable and inconceivable way. The words “limitlessness” and “nothingness” were deemed appropriate to describe this no-thing only because they are grammatical negatives, thus coming about as close as language can take us to a description that does not constrain. In fact, such negatives are really as constraining as positive affirmations, but they did serve to at least express the unattainable objective of describing or apprehending that which cannot be delimited. So there we have, at the core of medieval Jewish mysticism, the divine “no-thing.”
When one looks to a color field painting, the extent to which such a work reflects a minimalist ideal is the extent to which that which is rendered is nothing. Or perhaps we should call it “no-thing.” There is no observable subject and no compositional structure. There may be only an atmosphere or ambience embodied in the work, the sheerest veil garbing nothingness. Field painting has always seemed to me to have sought to capture something of the same “no-thing” that so absorbed Jewish mystics. Nevertheless, perhaps every example of field painting that we can think of does not fully embody the “minimalist ideal” of which I just spoke. There is always a scant trace, in some form or other, of a “something” whose very presence highlights the “no-thing” that contextualizes it. This reflects a tension latent in field painting. It is the painted “something” that is all the painter has at his or her disposal to invoke the “nothing.” To make matters more difficult, “something” - that is, material itself - must be employed for the purpose. Jewish mystics at least had recourse to thoughts and words, elements that were devoid of tangibility. Field painters articulate through substances their sense of that which defies tangibility. For myself, this dichotomy between means (paint) and end (nothingness) has been thrown into ever sharper relief over the years, to the point even of absurdity. I can and will speak in intellectual terms about a resolution to this dichotomy that is experientially much more elusive. To overcome this dichotomy between means and end experientially would be to have the material appear to dissolve before the bona fide reality within it, or, conversely, to have the “no-thing” appear to have coalesced in itself, as material. My recourse has been to a painting process that plumbs this tension between means and end. My process is a kind of a meditation on these two poles, and on what I take to be the illusory nature of the distinction between one and the other.
Medieval Jewish mystics sought as well to overcome the perception of dichotomies in the world. Their sense of the world’s order was built out of oppositions, yet these oppositions were all to be elided in a consciousness that partook of the divine “no-thing,” itself devoid of oppositions, of which I spoke earlier. It is worth illustrating this tendency by focusing on some of my dissertation work. I’ll speak now about the influential thirteenth century Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia. An enormously controversial figure, Abulafia conceived of himself as the messiah and innovated an entirely new branch of Jewish mystical practice. He, like his mystically-minded brethren, was fixated upon the experiential overcoming of what we might call a dualist consciousness. Any sense of alterity, of traces of the other, was to be annihilated in order to precipitate a unification with the divine.  Paradoxically perhaps, the experiential overcoming of the particular dichotomy between the sacred and the profane was a major preoccupation. For Abulafia, this preoccupation shaped his relationship to the religious other in whose midst he dwelled as a European Jew; this other, of course, was Christendom. Abulafia emphasized time and again the view that Christianity represented the idolatrous and the profane, but Abulafia also maintained that Christianity, or Jesus, more particularly, represented half of his own nature. Abulafia asserted the need to subsume this half within an undifferentiated internal state.
This conception assumes some interesting forms in Abulafia’s writings. As was traditional, Abulafia upheld the Jewish covenant of circumcision as the mark that acts to distinguish a Jew from a member of one of the supposedly profane nations, separating the Jew from the Christian most specifically. Discussing the traditionally two-part procedure by which it is performed, Abulafia chose to describe circumcision as being composed of “warp and woof”. He seems to have originated this description of circumcision. This configuration Abulafia further referred to as “cruciform.” In fact, in medieval Hebrew the same phrase is used to indicate “warp and woof” and to refer to the Christian cross, and Abulafia makes full use of this double meaning. The implications of Abulafia’s approach to the nature of circumcision is striking. Abulafia deliberately equates the distinguishing mark of the Jewish people with its diametric opposite, the distinguishing symbol of Christianity, the cross. At the very physical site, then, of the Jewish male’s assumption of his unique identity, he comes into possession within himself of the identity of the religious other, the Christian. For Abulafia and for his fellow Jewish mystics, circumcision symbolized as well the achievement of mystical communion with the divine. So it is that, for Abulafia, the Jewish man’s unification with the divine is equivalent to the embodiment, at the very seat of his identity, of that which is wholly other, that which is represented for Abulafia as the Christian.
It hardly needs to be pointed out that today’s cultural context is a world away from Abulafia’s. But I would maintain that in the field painter’s fixation upon the transcendent, the same factors are at play as were present for Abulafia. The imperative to destroy the distinction between the sacred and the profane is entirely commensurate, I believe, with the impulse to transmute the material in the journey toward the immaterial. And there are clear art historical precedents that demonstrate the presence of such a continuum between the medieval mystical impulse and the artistic one to which I refer.
I’ll touch upon one that has occupied a good deal of my attention. To do so I’ll first discuss another of the ways in which medieval Jewish mystics understood how the metaphysical breach might be bridged between the no-thing and the material world. Over the course of many generations, what evolved among these mystics was a consensus that there were ten strata or echelons between these two poles, that these strata existed in a hierarchy, that God’s act of creation began with the unfolding of this hierarchy, and that the mystic, in returning to the “no-thing,” was to retrace this route in reverse. One additional feature of this arrangement of the ten divine gradations, known as “sefirot,” was that they were configured, again hierarchically, into three successive sets of three, with one lone sefira, representing the material sphere, beneath. This triadic configuration reflects once more the preoccupation with the resolution of dichotomies. For within each triad, two sefirot were described exhaustively in terms of their opposed natures. The third in each triad had the supremely important charge of reconciling these opposites, and was characterized in terms of its “middleness” or centrality. These middle, harmonizing sefirot, one in each triad, figured particularly prominently in the thought and practice of Jewish mystics.
Now we may jump forward several hundred years to the Christian world of the sixteenth century, and to one of the crown jewels of European art, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. It is fairly well known in art historical circles that, in Michelangelo’s day, some of the Pope’s chief theological advisors and confidants avidly pursued the study of medieval Jewish mysticism. They sought to unearth hidden Christian truths in this Jewish doctrine, much as had been the Christian approach to the Jewish Bible since the beginnings of Christianity. It is also widely agreed among art historians that Michelangelo would not have been left to devise the Sistine Ceiling’s imagery on his own. He would certainly have been following a theologian’s program. What has not been observed in art historical circles is the extent to which Jewish mystical doctrine influenced the Ceiling program.
In the nine central panels represented on the Ceiling, we find three triads arranged in a descending hierarchy moving from altar to entrance (see image). In the first triad, God appears as the sole main actor (see bottom right detail). In the second triad, Adam and Eve recur in each scene (see center right detail). And, in the third, scenes from the life of Noah are presented in each (see top right detail). Importantly, we can see on the Ceiling that, in each triad, one scene presents the main actors twice, and in an opposing manner. God is shown twice in the scene of the creation of the sun and moon, for instance, once with a fiery demeanor and once drifting placidly (see bottom right detail, second of the three panels shown there). Similarly, in one scene Adam and Eve are shown first enjoying the garden and then being expelled (see center right detail, first of the three panels shown there). Lastly, in one scene Noah is shown first diligently tilling the soil and then plunged into a state of drunkenness (see top right detail, first of the three panels shown there). These are the only three scenes on the entire Ceiling that represent their actors twice, and it is for good reason that this visual device is employed. For the nine central depictions are representations of the three triads that encompass the nine upper sefirot. The three scenes on the Ceiling, one in each triad, that unify dichotomous depictions of their main actors are representations of the three middle sefirot; these, we noted, reconcile the two opposed sefirot within their respective triads. Below these nine central scenes the Ceiling curves downward. The lower portions of the vault represent the single terrestrial sefira. In this lower area of the vault, we find a reverse course, or an ascent, suggested. Depictions of male prophets alternate with those of female sibyls in a movement that progresses back toward the altar, to culminate in a messianic depiction of Jonah, who alone gazes toward the uppermost sefirot, the ultimate locus of mystical attainment.
The artistic impetus toward medieval Jewish mystical doctrine, present in the Renaissance, reemerges with the dawning of modernism and conceptualism in the twentieth century. It recurs, to take one important case, in Duchamp’s “Large Glass” of 1915-1923 (see image). This seminal piece is known to have been influenced by the Jewish mystical model of the sefirot. Yet this crucial facet of the piece remains understudied. What has not been adequately appraised is Duchamp’s actual intent in making use of the Jewish mystical system. Importantly, Duchamp actually inverts the standard model of the sefirot in the piece’s mechanistic rendering. Traditionally, the lowest of the gradations is characterized as the female bride, who longs for erotic union with the upper sefirot. These nine upper gradations together symbolize the supernal male groom. Jewish mystics conceived of the unification of opposites in explicitly erotic terms. In Duchamp’s piece, actually entitled “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even,” the lowest of the gradations occupies alone the top half of the piece, and not the bottom, as we might have expected. The remaining nine gradations, referred to by Duchamp as the bachelors, occupy the bottom half (these are the nine vaguely figural entities toward the left of the piece). This overturning of standard assignations dovetails with the gender play in which Duchamp contemporaneously engages elsewhere. Around the same time, for instance, he assumes a female alter ego for himself, Rrose Selavy (“C’est la Vie,” or “C’est Levi”), whom he characterizes as a) lascivious and b) Jewish. Both in the title, “The Bride Stripped Bare…,” and in his characterization of Rrose Selavy as lustful, we see Duchamp aggressively pushing an erotic theme. It is apparent that Duchamp took this eroticism as central to his pursuit of some manner of personal transformation. My former Professor, Robert Morgan, has observed the overwhelming importance of androgyny to Duchamp. I believe that Duchamp seized upon the Jewish mystical model as expressive of his desire to effect the kind of transformation for which androgyny, the simultaneous embodiment of male and female attributes, was a symbol. Duchamp deliberately elevated the sphere of his endeavor from the strictly psycho-sexual to the transcendental. We would do well to recall here the idea that, with the reconciliation of opposites sought by the Jewish mystic, the profane or transgressive is brought into the sphere of the sacred and the orthodox. Such was Abulafia’s direction in his bringing the Christian cross into a state of synonymity with the Jewish covenant of circumcision. One may suspect that Duchamp acted under a similar impulse as he sought to elevate the profane and to bring down the supernal. Robert Morgan refers to Duchamp, in The Large Glass, as deliberately creating a “problem” in his establishing of the “division” between the bride and grooms. If so, then it is the overturning of the traditional placement of these entities in Jewish mysticism that resolves the problem in the Large Glass. The state of androgyny that both Duchamp and medieval Jewish mystics prized well explains Duchamp’s desire to overturn, and in the process to elide, oppositeness.
We can see how many avenues may be pursued toward the one objective of encountering the transcendent, and how unified these are despite their diversity. It is likely the difficulty of the undertaking that gives rise to so many different routes. The goal, after all, is a realization of that which transcends comprehension, or of that which is indeterminate according to this exhibition’s title. Above all, and more than the physical piece that remains on the wall, my work for me concerns the process of tracking my own efforts in this arena. For the most part these take the form of developing ever new interpretations, within the same general framework, of my activity and its objective. In a sense, the numerical tally of the marks applied to each piece, which becomes each work’s title, captures something more essential to the work than does the physical piece itself. Here again, an analogy to Jewish mysticism is instructive, as these thinkers viewed numbers as the original building blocks of creation and as vehicles for mystical attainment. For me, the numerical tally that is a painting’s title retreats from the work’s sensual enticements; it is a comment on the work, and the comment is the real work. The application of paint continues “on and on,” apace with this tally, which as well mounts “on and on.” These two aspects of my practice in fact recall the two poles of which I’ve been speaking. My apologies if this discussion as well has seemed to go “on and on.”