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Buddhism, Landscape, and the Absolute Truth about Abstract Painting


Helmut Federle, “Zwei Felder” (1995), acrylic on cardboard. Courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery.

We were riding the elevator deep inside the Hoover Dam. The guide was describing the millions of tons of concrete surrounding us when my friends Peter Acheson and Chris Keeny turned to me and said, “You don’t look so good.”

I spent the day with a fever in a Vegas motel room while my friends explored The Valley of the Fire State Park on mescalin. Apparently the mescaline kicked in around sunset and the earth turned into a bed of glowing red jewels.

They scrambled around on hands and knees collecting as many jewels as they could. The next morning I climbed into our Ford van to discover little piles of rocks everywhere, including two pillowcases filled up completely with dirt.

We drove north out of town. We began laughing and continued laughing till tears ran down our cheeks. My fever was gone. I remember the windows were down and the wind was blowing the dirt around in the back of the van.

Abstract painting is the dirt that catches the sun. You can’t hold on to it. Paintings are not facts—they are invitations to the dance. If you stuff painting into a pillowcase you’ll only have a pillowcase full of dirt. When we try to seize painting and fix the meaning it dies before our eyes.


Helmut Federle had a house near Agnes Martin’s in the New Mexico desert. Richard Tuttle and I went to visit them and one night we all went out bowling together at the Big Indian Bowlmor Lanes. Federle bowled with a kind of casual precision, his long arms sweeping forward with confidence. Tuttle bowled with eccentric intensity but rarely hit the pins as he rolled the balls in different directions, listening (he said) to where they wanted to go.

Agnes Martin shuffled hunched over with age and bowled very slowly, extremely slowly. She laid down the heavy balls and gently pushed them down the lane. They moved so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. In fact I often looked away distracted in conversation as her ball inched along. She bowled a perfect game.

Federle loved the way the falling bowling pins reminded him of thunder up in the Swiss Alps and Agnes loved the way the falling bowling pins reminded her of thunder rolling along the flat horizon of Saskatchewan. Tuttle loved the sound of the crashing pins because that’s what was happening at that particular moment. Maybe it happened that way—maybe it didn’t. If you tell me this is how it happened I tell you I made it up.

Painting and Buddhism

Helmut Federle, “Ohne Titel” (1981), pencil and felt marker on paper. Courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery.

Painting and Buddhism are old friends. One day they went out for a walk together and Painting asked Buddhism why it took so long and so much effort to make a good painting. Buddhism says, “Exactly like this.” Painting says, “Don’t give me that enigmatic Buddhist shit—tell me why it’s so hard.” Buddhism says, “The effort is all in your mind—long or short is all in your mind.” Buddhism knows that great paintings are both serious and absurd. Buddhism understands that the only way towards the absolute is through the specific moment at hand. He knows that a real painter begins at the end and ends at the begining. Buddhism knows that this is all true and all not true. But he doesn’t say a word. Painting says why don’t you ever give me a straight answer? Buddhism just smiles in that certain way that always irritates the hell out of Painting.

Once Painting told Buddhism that he remembered visiting his grandmother as she lay in bed in a mansion with tall ceilings and dusty golden curtains. Painting was five years old watching his mother whispering and holding his grandmother’s hand. Painting was staring at the television image of a falling pine tree while his grandmother lay dying of stomach cancer in the elaborate golden bed. It was the first time Painting ever remembers watching a television and he can still see the tree fall to the forest floor over and over again. Buddhism smiles at Painting with glistening eyes and says, “Exactly like this.”

What Art Is

Richard Tuttle, “New Mexico, New York, E, #5” (1998), acrylic on fir plywood. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.

Richard Tuttle was five years old when the teacher passed out a piece of paper and a box of crayons and he says, “I knew what my life was about. But I didn’t know what art is at the time…because you can know you are an artist before you even know what art is.”

The interesting thing about Tuttle is that he went on to become an artist who really did forget what art is. At his first one person show at Betty Parsons Gallery he looked across the room and recognized one of his paintings as a drawing from kindergarten.

Tuttle crosses boundries between drawing, painting, sculpture, and installation. He presents us with little bits of material arranged with undeniable purpose, but a purpose we can’t quite fathom. This is the mystery and freedom of serious play. He has the ability to make us look—and really see what we’re seeing—a single pencil line, a simple green shape, delicate white paint against the plywood grain, the afternoon sunlight across the molding. At his best Tuttle seems to have become the ideal invisible artist. One does not imagine him actually making the paintings. Rather he steps aside and allows them to pass through to us.

Richard Tuttle is not searching, and therefore he is open to finding. In this way he subverts our own expectations of serious form or of symbolic truth. Sometimes when the ego doesn’t get what it wants and we let go for a moment we can drop into real seeing. In front of a tiny Tuttle I can become so absorbed that I’m deeply alive. I feel the air on the back of my neck, I feel my feet on the floor, I’m alert to the faintest sounds.

The Sister of the Shah of Iran

Once Painting and Buddhism went to a party in a loft on Houston street. There were paintings of birds everywhere. There were giant plants and cages full of tropical birds, screeching parrots, and one monkey. The host was showing off his ocelot—a large wild cat on a leash walking along the top of the couch. It was crowded. Reggae music was blasting. The shiny marble coffee table had dozens of lines of cocaine layed out in a beautiful pattern. Painting was so happy to recognize Ada Katz from all of her Alex Katz portraits. Painting was walking around quietly saying “she looks just like herself” over and over and giggling at his own joke. A famous French art dealer was telling a story about the sister of the Shah of Iran who had a Ken Noland painting on consignement and her favorite pet parrot had shit all over the painting and she refused to pay damages. The art dealer was shrieking, “It’s raw canvas and can you imagine the bitch refused to pay…” Standing next to Painting and Buddhism was the gorgeous 18-year-old boyfriend of the art dealer fresh off a U.S. Navy air craft carrier in Virginia and he was asking in southern drawl, “Is this what the parties are like here in New York City?” and Buddhism says, “Always.”

Jessica Stockholder

There’s a photograph of a backyard in Vancouver with grass, a tree, and a little shed. The grass is green. The grass is green but the queen size mattress attached to the middle of the shed is painted bright flourescent red. A rough rectangle of grass is painted light blue extending diagonally from the shed which brings the blue sky to the green ground as the mattress brings out the red flowers of the tree. There’s a purple cupboard door that sticks up from the shed roof along with a partially unfolded roll of chicken wire. At first we see the mattress rectangle as a painting, and then everything becomes a painting with tree and sky, earth and light, and some wonderful and absurd recognition of family, childhood, and magical yardness.

Jessica Stockholder has been making outragoeus installations since that pivotal 1983 backyard piece. Her sprawling creations have included paint, sheetrock walls, large wooden platforms, hay bales, crates of oranges, refrigerator doors, electric fans, propane heaters, pillows, lamps, string, feathers, duct tape, bricks, light bulbs, laundry baskets, car doors, colored yarn, carpets, chests of drawers, newspapers, glass, tennis balls, plaster, concrete, stuffed animals, rocks, cinderblocks, and bathtubs.

But I think of her as a painter. For one thing there’s the color—this overwhelming unifying color that slides around corners, covers disparate objects, blurs boundries, shifts, quivers, flashes, and stays in memory. Stockholder is a painter of color, a painter of unconscious desire, a painter of the unexpected, a painter of crazy shit, a painter of the momentary flash of recognition here now this moment.

The 27th Street Depot

My first job in New York City was to unload Florida flowers from tractor trailers on the wholesale market at 28th street. We worked from the middle of the night untill dawn, guiding the long trucks up and down the street, and filling each empty store with boxes. By three in the morning the deserted streets belonged to me, the taxis, and the hookers. A large retarded man named Pat used to dress in a fake police uniform with a silver badge and follow us around on a bicycle decorated with ribbons, bells, and a flashing light. He was the official flower market security guard. I used to see some strange things. Once I came around the corner on Broadway and saw people crowding around two hookers—naked except for panties and high heels—rolling around fighting on the sidewalk. Pat and I waded in to try and stop them but were pulled back by a Pakastani cab driver shouting, “Are you crazy—this good show!” Another time a naked man with feathers on was pushing another man down 27th street in a postal wagon. No one payed any mind. Wilbur, the fat driver just leaned out of the tractor trailer and drawled, “Shiiiit…”

I had a golden ring of keys which opened every door on 28th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. Around the corner was the 27th Street Depot. Gus—known as “crazy Greek”—showed up around 5 a.m. to start up his little woodstove and sort out boxes for Long Island. Sometimes his business day started with sex with his “street ladies.” I remember walking in with a box of gladiolas over my shoulder to find a young black hooker giving Gus a blowjob. I apologized and set the box down to leave but Gus insisted that we start the paperwork and so we checked over the packing list with her head bobbing up and down on Gus’s cock. Once he thought Pat had stolen a case of roses and he took off his belt and began to give Pat a whipping. But his pants fell down, and he fell over, allowing Pat to stomp him and stab him in the face with a plastic fork. Gus was bleeding all over the carnations and the police came. After that Pat had to stop wearing his fake police outfit and he started to dress like an air force general.

But Gus remained relentlessly cheerful and curious about everything. Whenever I unloaded at the 27th street depot we talked about politics, life, and art. He wanted to know what kind of paintings I made, and could we put one in the depot. I told him they were really big paintings. He asked, “Are they like the Parthenon?” I told him I made abstract paintings. Gus says, “You mean there is no women?”

Abstract Painting

Abstract painting will not save the world. The time when abstract painting led the avant garde and provoked shock and outrage is a poignant memory now. Abstract painting plays a miniscule part in a culture staurated with movies, video games, giant photographs, endless newspapers, glossy magazines, and television—everywhere television. We are bombarded with images that come faster and faster. This waterfall of advertising tries to hook us with instantly legible messages.

Much of the art world uses the Warhol empty mirror approach to this deadly materialist juggernaut. Following Duchamp’s lead they embrace and mirror the images and technologies and the instant messages of popular culture—but with a little ironic twist. These artists are attempting to use the look and style of the machine to express individual vision. Instead of selling Pepsi they’re selling a supposedly radical or liberating ideology. More often than not it’s some politically correct or ironic intellectual conceit.

Art is not about delivering some message with speed or fashionable technology. Art should not be about impressing the culture with a new logo. Whereas the goal of all advertising is speed, the great potential of art is timelessness.

Are You Scared?

Sometimes Buddhism and Painting go out drinking. They talk loud in crowded bars. Painting proclaims, “Art is the lie that points to the truth.” Buddhism says, “Art is the finger pointing to the moon—if we are lucky the finger disappears.” Painting says, “Art is naked fresh out of the shower shivering dripping wet.” Buddhism replies, “Art is naked slides out of bed in the morning groggy with an erection.” Painting shouts, “No one has the slightest idea what I’m saying.” Buddhism yells out, “Can we slip and fall to the top of the mountain?” And they keep drinking.

Painting doesn’t always like it when Buddhism gets drunk because he gets into his Tibetan crazy wisdom thing. They are walking down the street at two in the morning and the sidewalk is glistening with broken glass. Buddhism gets fierce with bloodshot eyes and he starts shouting at painting, “What do you know? What the fuck do you know?” Buddhism picks up a trashcan lid and bangs on the ground shouting crazy shit, “Understand this! To understand this you must chew the pie crust with alchemical teeth! Not because you want to but because you really really don’t give a fuck!” Later, sitting around the kitchen table, Buddhism is weepy and apologetic. He says, “The darkness leads us and it’s hard to listen within our shoulder blades. Are you scared? Who wouldn’t be?”


Painting can show us what is real. But a painting is not an image of truth like some road sign. When confronted with abstract paintings which contain incredible energy, we often confuse this experience of the real with the particular sign or image of the painting. Mondrian is the inventor of the neo plastic image. We may associate his severe geometry and primary colors with absolute truth or some austere Theosophy. His paintings are really great, but they are not great because they look like Mondrians. When we access the universal energy which Mondrian tapped into, we can let go of the painting as image. Mondrian developed a language to access an energy which is everywhere around us. This energy and light is the meaning of the painting. It is here always, this moment.

Old Friends

Painting and Buddhism were walking around Chelsea galleries and they were stuck waiting for the elevator at 529 West 20th Street. There’s only one elevator, and Painting always gets irritated and complains bitterly that in this huge building with fifty galleries you always wait forever. Painting exclaims, “Why don’t they let us use the freight elevator?” and Buddhism is just listening quietly and he says, “You have an excessive desire for answers. It is when you finally give up and have no more ideas, that you will see things as they are. Whatever is before you is your teacher…”

And Painting is like “Yeah, yeah, I know, give me a fucking break. Yesterday I painted all day and at midnight I gave up and sat on the floor and I’m looking at this thing and it’s going nowhere and so I painted it out. I tried drawing and the drawings were going nowhere so at 3 a.m. I stopped drawing and I wrote down a sentence and that was the only good thing I got all night – one sentence in my notebook…” And Buddhism is beaming, saying “that’s good very good…”


Painting can show us what is real by stimulating a kind of looking, a kind of awareness. This occurs when the road signs disappear. When the thinking and conceptual ego mind so desperate to “understand” is defeated—then we begin to experience the image. Then we start to see. When there are no time limits and no soundtracks we start to see. When there are no headphones to tell us what to think or when to move to the next painting, then we see. Paintings live in time as an invitation to consciousness, and thus exist as a collaboration between painter and viewer.

Once in a little room at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., I paused before this Courbet seascape and the light glinting off the thick paint at the top of the wave caught my eye and the wave turned into this juicy sculpture, and the wave continued crashing like a fatal fact and in that moment what I knew came through me—not from me.

This Path

Painting and Buddhism came out of a movie. They stepped into a warm June evening and strolled along the sidewalks of the East Village looking for Japanese food. Second Avenue was packed: sexy green hair, beautiful dogs, nose rings, and elaborate tatoos all swept by in the crowd. Red and blue neon lights reflected off Buddhism’s shiny shaved head. Painting was feeling expansive and full of himself. He began expounding on how he had turned a corner and transcended distinctions of abstraction and figuration. He said good or bad painting had no meaning; and in fact he was trying to make really bad paintings now, really ugly paintings for a change, and how his new work was at a whole new level, and on and on…Buddhism needed to take a piss and was gently trying to focus the conversation on choosing a restaurant. Finally he interrupted Painting and said, “Listen, if you try to make a good painting or a beautiful painting or an ugly painting you can accomplish this. But you will not discover the true nature of painting. The path of painting is not about making important objects. This path is an opportunity to see things as they are. We are all immortals, the precious teacup is already broken, the wind is in the trees.”


Chris Martin

CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2005

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