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Billions of stars light up the direction toward the center of our Galaxy. The vast majority of these stars are themselves billions of years old, rivaling their home Milky Way Galaxy in raw age. These stars are much more faint and red than the occasional young blue stars that light up most galaxies. Together with interstellar dust, these old stars make a yellowish starscape, as pictured above. Although the opaque dust obscures the true Galactic center in visible light, a relative hole in the dust occurs on the right of the image. This region, named Baade’s Window for an astronomer who studied it, is used to inspect distant stars and to determine the internal geometry of the Milky Way. Baade’s Window occurs toward the constellation of Sagittarius.—From Astronet. (Photo: David Malin)

Over the last few months I have repeatedly bumped into the cosmic art meme: art explorations (by others as well as my own) that speak to and connect with the concept and implications of the space/time continuum.

Astronomical photographer David Malin‘s images of space (the above image is one of his photographs) have been assembled into an exquisite Phaidon volume called Ancient Light: A Portrait of the Universe. This book has been a steady resource for me all summer. Even the front cover is provocative: white binding wrapped in a black paper sleeve with star pattern perforations.

The recent show at the ICA featured works by Josiah McElheny where these themes were present as well. From the ICA description:

Some Pictures of the Infinite tackles cosmic questions, tracing this persistent theme in the work of Josiah McElheny. Over the past two decades, the problem of infinity has driven McElheny’s efforts to represent the unrepresentable, as the infinite by definition must always elude stable grasp. The exhibition also examines images of time: archaeological time, linear and cyclical models, and the overwhelming span of cosmic time.

In McElheny’s diverse body of work, the infinite crops up again and again… He has also repeatedly drawn inspiration from the enormity of the cosmos, gaining a working knowledge of astronomy through a long-term collaboration with the cosmologist David Weinberg. Their partnership has resulted in multiple artworks picturing the origins of the universe, with particular attention to the theory of the Big Bang.

Equal parts empirical and aesthetic, McElheny’s imaginative approach to science doesn’t instruct viewers but seduces them, couching cutting-edge cosmology in unabashed formal beauty.

Installation view of Josiah McElheny’s The Center is Everywhere at the ICA. The work’s title references Blaise Pascal’s pronouncement that “nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Last weekend I stopped by one of my favorite hidden jewels in Western Massachusetts, the Williams College Museum of Art. One of the exhibits, Cosmologies, dovetailed into this same cosmic meme.

From the curatorial statement by Elizabeth Rooklidge:

Cosmology is the arena in which science, metaphysics, philosophy, and religion converge. The multitude of cosmological approaches seeks to uncover the universe’s origins, fate, meaning, and physical laws. By studying the universe, from the smallest pieces of matter to the enormous expanse of time and space, we may be able to come to a better understanding not only of its scientific functioning but also humanity’s ultimate purpose. Drawn from the WCMA collection, Cosmologies considers just a few of the many ways in which art can explore these complex themes.

Reflecting the multifaceted nature of this investigation, the featured artists work in a wide array of media…several artists take scientific inquiry as their point of departure, integrating it with philosophical contemplation and a search for personal significance. Some mine ancient mythology, while others engage cosmological thought through compositional abstraction. A few reflect on the historical and cultural implications of space exploration. Whatever their origin, these works collectively reveal an enduring fascination with the universe as well as the rich results of these artists’ cosmological investigations.

The exhibition includes works by Kiki Smith, Vija Celmins, Thomas Ruff, Duane Michals, June Wayne, Bernard Cohen, Lynn Chadwick, Joseph Cornell, Wallace Berman, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Rauschenberg, Vik Muniz and Barbara Takenaga. Here is a sampling:

Nebraska Painting (Rising), by Barbara Takenaga

Close up view

Three exquisite lithographs from June Wayne (who I have written about previously here) are accompanied by this thoughtful curatorial note:

In a series of lithographs entitled Stellar Winds, June Wayne turns scientific cosmology from celestial mechanics to energetic abstraction. A stellar wind is created by gas flowing from the upper atmosphere of a star out into space. Here, Wayne transforms the momentum of the star’s gas into an enigmatic, graceful composition. Drawing from her artistic curiosity about energy and space, Wayne investigates the physical universe as a metaphor for exploration of the self.

Duane Michals, Untitled (from “The Indomitable Spirit Portfolio”), gelatin silver print (Photo: Duane Michals)

And my own work speaks to an abstracted astral sensibility as well. In a new series of large format works, my explorations co-mingle a sense of the cosmic expanse with the infinite that also exists in that interior world of our consciousness.

That is one way of describing what is emerging I suppose. The right words are hard to find for a body of work that is still forming.




The view of Coolidge Point near Manchester Massachusetts and home to my friend Laurel, a hermit artist extraordinaire. Being a 21st century Thoreauian is a singular stance.

More on the theme of isolation, solitude, quiet (see the earlier post Where it Works.) Online artists and friends Walt Pascoe, Luke Storms and Holly Friesen directed me to an essay that appeared two years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Learning titled The End of Solitude by William Deresiewicz. Tracing the concept of solitude from Ancient Greece through Romanticism, Modernism and now Postmodernism, Deresiewicz illuminates a rich history of how time alone has been viewed. During certain periods, such as the Romantic age, it was highly valued. At other times, like our current era, not so much.

Deresiewicz captures the essence of our time in a word:

Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

Say it isn’t so, Joe. I value the qualities of sincerity and authenticity, and most art that I respond to has a strong relationship with both of those concepts. But Deresiewicz is naming something that has shifted significantly in the last ten years in so many aspects of our lives.

As an artist, the visibility-first approach to art making and marketing is something many of us find deeply disturbing. I’m not shunning the value of visibility for anyone who is a maker. We need audiences to read our poetry, look at our paintings, listen to our music. And when the Internet can help us find those who are receptive, that’s a plus. But is visibility the grounding for the contemporary self? Is it possible to do your work with sincerity and authenticity and still have a high Klout score? These are questions I’m not sure can be answered just yet.

Deresiewicz’s essay is worth the read in its entirety and full of insights on a number of themes including generational differences, cities, suburbs, friendship, cultural history. But here are just a few other passages that speak most directly to my own solitude-seeking, hermit-hearted self:

* * *
And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.” Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity.

* * *
To hold oneself apart from society…is to begin to think one’s way beyond it. Solitude, Emerson said, “is to genius the stern friend.” “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus — especially, Emerson added, during youth. “God is alone,” Thoreau said, “but the Devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion”.

* * *
No real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. “The saint and poet seek privacy,” Emerson said, “to ends the most public and universal.” We are back to the seer, seeking signposts for the future in splendid isolation.

* * *
The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn’t very polite. Thoreau knew that the “doubleness” that solitude cultivates, the ability to stand back and observe life dispassionately, is apt to make us a little unpleasant to our fellows, to say nothing of the offense implicit in avoiding their company…But Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.

Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Museum in Rome was controversial from its inception.

The museum was built to house just one artifact, the Ara Pacis, a finely carved sacrificial altar built in 13AD to commemorate the victories of Emperor Augustus in Spain and Gaul. Adding to its historical significance to Romans, the altar was fully restored by Mussolini in the late 1930s in his attempt to league himself with Rome’s ancient history and power.

From the very beginning of the project, Meier was caught in a complex web of politics, culture, history and nationalism. Open for a year now, the museum still continues to be a touchstone for certain radical types in a city (and a nation) that thrives on these ongoing controversies.

Here’s an overview from Steve Rose of the Guardian:

His new Ara Pacis Museum is the first significant structure to go up in Rome’s historic centre since Mussolini’s time, and as such it has attracted a great deal of attention, mostly negative. Its enemies have likened it variously to a petrol station, a pizzeria and a giant coffin. Vittorio Sgarbi, a celebrity art critic and former deputy culture minister, publicly set fire to a model of the building, and recently declared it “an indecent cesspit by a useless architect”. He has talked of forming an anti-Meier committee. The day before the museum’s opening last week, Gianni Alemanno, the rightwing candidate for Rome’s mayorship, pledged that he would tear the museum down and put it up somewhere in the suburbs, should he be elected.

(By the way, Alemanno did win the election and immediately called for the museum’s dismantling…)

Not to be outdone in slandering the museum, American painter turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel called the museum “an air-conditioning unit”.

The New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff declared the museum a “flop”:

Although Mr. Meier speaks eloquently about the architectural past, his buildings can be stubbornly oblivious to physical and cultural context… in Rome context is inescapable, and Mr. Meier’s building seems intent on shunning the city’s seductive charms.

That wasn’t what Meier had in mind by any means. According to a conversation between Meier and Rose:

Like most of Meier’s buildings, his solution could easily be dismissed as a big white box – but there is more to his big white boxes than meets the eye. The building is based on the scale and proportions of the surrounding ancient structures and the altar itself, Meier explains, and despite what his detractors say, he has given great thought to the museum’s context.

“It kind of embraces everything that’s around it,” he says, standing in the museum’s terraced corner entrance, which will eventually contain a pond fed by a wall of water. “I wanted to make it a public destination, a new piazza space in Rome that people can come to whether they’re going to the museum or not, and just sit in the sun – that’s what Romans like to do. It’s bringing life to what was not a vital or active area before.”

But there are others agree with me and find the building stunning.

I have had a long term love affair with great white spaces, even as they have come and gone, come and gone in architectural respectability. Meier’s white buildings (and for that matter, all of the other New York Five as well–Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk.) are so supremacistly gorgeous. I can’t resist just giving myself over to them. The Barcelona Museum with its massive glass wall. The Getty Center in LA. The Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana. These are amazing spaces to look at and be in.

Meier seems to have decided very early on in his career that there is no architectural problem that can’t be solved through some composition of simple geometric forms, executed in huge sheets of glass, blank surfaces, grids of enamelled steel panels – and no colours except white. Always white. (Rose)

Peter Davey in Architectural Review was effulgent in his praise of the Ara Pacis Museum:

Meier has succeeded triumphantly… In the entrance hall, the travertine to the left is flooded with luminance from rooflights, dramatically bringing out the patterns of the fossils and finally falling on a row of classical heads. Yet after the brightness of the Roman sky, the space seems almost sepulchral. A line of seven circular concrete columns finished in white waxed marble plaster runs in front of the white right-hand wall, creating a zone for reception desks and simultaneously drawing you forward to the main hall. Here, the Ara Pacis sits in the centre of a high luminous gallery with long glass walls overlooking the embankment to the west and the mausoleum on the other side. Supported on four concrete columns, the gridded roof modulates the sky’s light. Apparently, the ancient structure is flooded with natural daylight. In fact, the light is much reduced in intensity by greyish low-e glazing and external horizontal louvres of translucent glass. It becomes clear that the darkness of the entrance space is an ingenious tactic, for its relative gloom persuades your eyes that you are in ordinary daylight again when you get to the great hall, particularly when morning and evening sun seem to shine without being modified through the glass walls.

Both my daughter Kellin and I were amazed by how Meier was able to command light in the space. It is hard to capture in a photograph, but once inside, you just want to stay and bask.

The lower space is used for contemporary art exhibits. Taking yourself downward, into a much darker and less beguiling space to find the 21st century, seemed strangely apropos and fitting. Meier has succeeded in blending of old and new, a sort of “mind the gap” aesthetic. When it works, it leaves you just a little breathless.

Here is a comment made on yesterday’s post that is too good not to share. Thank you Elatia Harris for this entertaining variation on “accusatory white”:

I had a friend in San Francisco who was committed to this look, but not in white. Her palette was taupe to Rymanesque ecru, this being around 1980, when very pale neutrals were elbowing “gallery white.” Designers then reasoned that absolute white was an effect you could get with paint rather than taste and money, and was therefore too achievable-looking. My friend had the thinking but not the money, so her palazzo of pale neutrals, a converted industrial space, was a project that took many years to complete. For several of those years, she stood up to watch television, because the furniture she needed for living was always just a bridge too far. I particularly recall in the early stages, when there was nothing but sheet-rock and paint, one entered an environment that was a complexity of beiges — an outlaw word, that. It’s easy to conceive of a beige surround that’s boring, but this was somehow edgy, and so thought out it could never be the usual beige that results from capitulation. I dropped in for a look with a printmaker, who told my friend, “I get it. Your house is the color of rich people’s clothing.” Leaving, the printmaker said, “It’s very dry-clean only.”