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Simone Weil

Eva Hesse

The writer Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34. In spite of her short life, her legacy is a rich one, spanning a variety of métiers including philosophy, Christianity, theology, social justice, mysticism. And even though her life’s work was from her point of view of a god-centered believer, the atheist icon Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.”

Another young German woman, the artist Eva Hesse, also died at the age of 34. Like Weil, her short life had more than its fair share of difficulty and suffering. Also similar is the world’s steadily increasing interest in her body of work. With only a ten year career, Hesse was influential in the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Writing about a recent retrospective of her work, art historian Arthur Danto addressed “the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material…Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy…Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.”

I am amazed by the legacy of both of these women even though their work is not similar in nature or outlook. Each achieved extraordinary depth during lives that were improbably and tragically shortened. Spending time with either body of work is a sober reminder that suffering is perennial and life is short. That what you do each day is what matters most.

“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering,” Weil wrote.

Christian Wiman, also an admirer of Weil, responded to this statement in his essay Love Bade Me Welcome:

I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable…I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

That last line is a Taoist-like insight: the need, every day, to break ourselves apart and start fresh. That is a concept that speaks to me deeply.

But is it true, as Wiman claims, that it is not possible to be conscious and comfortable? Maybe it is the word comfortable that leaves me looking for some wiggle room. What about being conscious and accepting, in the spirit of Wendell Berry‘s admonishment to “be joyful though we have considered all the facts.” Still finding my way through that one.

This was a weekend with a disruptive sense of time. It made me think of an essay by the poet Wendell Berry, “An Entrance to the Woods” in which he describes making a trip to a forest in Kentucky. He leaves work, drives hard over the interstate highways for over an hour, then finally arrives at his destination. But he has a sense that he has not really arrived. He’s restless and uneasy, not comfortable in the intense silence of a forest he has loved in the past. He said his body was telling him that “people can’t change places as rapidly as their bodies can be transported.” Making the trip by way of the freeway, his mind was not yet fully there. In the past, he took the slower back roads and the acclimatization happened much more organically. He states, “the faster we go…the longer it takes to bring the mind to a stop in the presence of anything.” It wasn’t until the next morning that he was able to enter into the place for the first time. Only then could he say, “I move in the landscape as one of its details.”

Exhibit at Lyman-Eyer Gallery, Provincetown MA

My summer show opened in Provincetown on Friday night. Seeing my new work in a different context, grouped by a different set of eyes, is its own kind of mind/body journey. But that good night was followed close upon by an early morning flight to a wedding in a Pennsylvania. The euphoria of celebrating and dancing the night away with friends may have masked any differential in arrival times of body and spirit. That much reveling feels like a blast of full body joy.

Shifting again, I spent Sunday at the 55th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, a contemporary show themed loosely (and I do mean loosely) around Is there Life on Mars? A big yes to a few of the artists whose work was included in that show—Bruce Conner, recently deceased California artist, consistently moving Vija Celmins and a young Indian artist, Ranjani Shettar.

Angel series, Bruce Conner

Conner was a highly unpredictable artist who refused to be pigeonholed into any of the isms and labeling that are so rampant in contemporary art. Some of his work in the past has moved me, some has not. But Conner’s Angel series, photograms made from large sheets of light-sensitive paper exposed to a beam of light from a projector, are unforgettable. These images were created without a camera and feel apparition-like and other worldly. It was hard to not feel a bit weepy looking at these hauntingly beautiful works knowing that Conner passed away just a few weeks ago at the age of 74. Adieu to one of the brave ones.

Vija Celmins, Night Sky

Vija Celmins, whose image, Night Sky, won the Carnegie Prize, had a room full of her characteristically delicate paintings and drawings. I always find her work so insistently deep and authentic. She is one of the contemporary masters at holding tension between surface and depth.

Ranjani Shettar, Just a Bit More

Ranjani Shettar’s installation held me breathless. She created an updated version of Indra’s net out of a web of threads and hand-molded beeswax balls. It suggested outer space, multidimensional rabbit holes, the metaphor of a network that holds all of us in connection to one another. Exquisite.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Falling Water

The last leg of the journey was spent at Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece. I have been before, but I have never seen it in the context of the wild rhododendron forest of the Laurel Highlands. It is a flotilla of perfection, perched above those waterfalls and still, after all these years, an utterly compelling encounter.

Back home, most of the essential parts of me have returned with my body. Or maybe not. I’m still feeling these very distinct but powerful invitations to step out of the ordinary, whatever ordinary is, and to move in the landscape—both man made and natural—as one of its details.