What You See

Can you say it or write it? Or, formally speaking, in what respect is seeing transferable to speech and/or writing? As Baudelaire would put it, the question grabs us by the throat. You would like it to be an easy matter (“X is Great, Significant, Beautiful, etc.”) By now you know that seeing and writing is as complex as any art-making procedure, a nightmare complexity that should be paraded by all.

Portrait of Bill Berkson. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Here, we like to pretend, is the story of the work. “Criticism should tell you what is there,” wrote Fairfield Porter, but how much of what is there is visible, even imaginable, in how many viewings? De Kooning: “There’s no way of looking at a work of art by itself. It’s not self evident—it needs a history, it needs a lot of talking about; it’s part of a whole man’s life.” The job of the critic is to tell the story of the work.

What more is there in the account by William Carlos Williams in Spring and All of a Juan Gris still life? In all sincerity, Williams grapples with it:

Here is a shutter, a bunch of grapes, a sheet of music, a picture of sea and mountains (particularly fine) which the onlooker is not for a moment permitted to witness as an “illusion.”

One thing laps over on the other, the cloud laps over on the shutter, the bunch of grapes is part of the handle of the guitar, the mountain and sea are obviously not “the mountain and sea,” but a picture of the mountain and sea. All drawn with admirable simplicity and excellent design—all a unity.

“Language in the vicinity of what it’s talking about” is how Carter Ratcliff (taking a twist on something Robert Smithson wrote) once defined criticism in an art school seminar on the subject. Baudelaire imagined a superior criticism of art works “reflected by an intelligent and sensitive mind” but cautioned that the sonnets and elegies that might best accommodate such reflections, instead of being criticism proper, would appeal only to readers of poetry (apparently there were few enough of them, even then). When ARTnews was in its heyday, in the 1950s and early ’60s, Tom Hess told new reviewers who asked how it was done to write “as if you were writing a letter to an intelligent and sensitive friend who has no time for your nonsense.”

The assignment here is to take up one of two options in hopes that such constraints will be illuminating:

1) Write about what you see without mentioning any facts of a physical or technical nature. The terms of the work may be communicated as pure meaning or emotion, philosophy or politics. A poem or story is fair enough, or indeed anything that comes to mind, allowing that what is in the critic’s head is part of the situation of the work.

2) Write about what you see mentioning only the physical and or technical aspect of it, without interpretation. (This needs no further guidelines.)

An example of writing about a work of art without any mention of its physical attributes—or indeed, except by implication, that it is a painting at all—is W. H. Auden’s famous poem about the Brussels version of Pieter Breugel the Elder’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”:

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well, they understood.
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
           walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the
           torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

A beautiful example of description that omits mention of an art work’s possible meanings or qualities (though with a brisk bit of cheating at the end) is Donald Judd’s paragraph from Studio International, February, 1970, on a painting by Barnett Newman:

“Shining Forth (to George),” done in 1961, was shown in New York this year. It’s nine and a half feet high and fourteen and a half along. The rectangle is unprimed cotton canvas except for two stripes and the edges of a third. Slightly to the left of the center there is a vertical black strip three inches wide. All of the stripes run to the upper and lower edges. Slightly less than a foot from the left edge there is a black stripe an inch wide. This hasn’t been painted directly and evenly like the central stripe, but has been lade between two stripes of masking tape. The paint has run under the tape some, making the stripe a little rough. A foot in from the right edge there is another stripe an inch wide, but this is one of the reserved canvas, made by scraping black paint across a strip of masking tape and then removing it. There isn’t much paint on either side of the white stripe; the two edges are sharp just against the stripe and break into sharp palette knife marks just away from it. Some of the marks have been lightly brushed. The three stripes are fairly sharp but none are perfectly even and straight. It’s a complex painting.

Ultimately, of course, merging the physical with the metaphysical should be the norm in criticism. (One poem that manages to do this very well is Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter.”) But that is for another issue.


Bill Berkson

BILL BERKSON is a poet and art critic living in San Francisco and New York. He is professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught art history, writing, and poetry from 1984 until 2008.