The photograph, in my mind’s eye, sharply picks out a slender, slightly balding tree positioned about two-thirds of the way up a gentle rise that has been meticulously mowed to within an inch of its life. Bright sunlight glares from the left but I don’t see shadows, just the lights and darks of burned-in black and white printing. It’s one of those images you’d find at the artsy postcard stands on your first trip to Paris, where the seductions of New Objectivity and its fascination with the glister and hard edge of massed commodities softened by the vaselined light romance of glamour, fade into headshots of Jean-Paul Sartre or Walter Benjamin looking pensive. It’s an image by the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch—though here, too, I may be slightly misremembering because when I look it up, his photograph of a tree doesn’t quite match the one in my head. I also know his compatriot, August Sander, took such a photograph—I saw it once at an auction—but since he’s known for portraiture and not landscapes I may be misremembering that, too. In any case, it’s a pretty harmless picture, the photograph of my sad little tree.
And yet for me there is something ominous, even awful in this image. It has a fevered rawness which may be less about the picture itself than my openness to both its formalism and its deceptive simplicity. The crew-cut grass aches—it reminds me of Erich von Stroheim’s bald Prussian head—but this doesn’t make sense, except as an evocation of Teutonic clichés, and yet it also reminds me of another German I once knew, a very uptight elderly lady who regularly patrolled her lawn in Virginia looking for errant bits of bark which she would snap back into regimental order around the base of her shrubbery. That tree, young and slim but also stark, seems so raw and vulnerable. I don’t care if Robert Rauschenberg made fun of the “sad cup of coffee”: that tree stands like a terrible gnomon of the 20th century, marking all the empty fields, the depopulated landscapes, mass murder for the sake of an inhuman rectitude and now, well into the next century, of the evacuation of any last, vestigial “nature.”
Sometimes a work—an image, a sound, a smell, a taste—penetrates through time and intelligence into our meat-ness. To endure this encounter is to have one’s breath sucked out, as by the mythical cat. And sometimes such meetings—with the gnomon again, the dial or marker of much greater phenomena than are we—can prompt recalibration. Or at least that’s what we hope for from art, after all the palaver has gone silent.