When I lived in San Francisco (1977 – 79) the person I most wanted to meet (after Bob Kaufman) was Jordan Belson. But he had already become quite a famous recluse and all attempts were rebuffed. Belson’s remarkable underground films are often paired with Harry Smith’s: they were best friends and shared a painting studio on and off from 1948 until 1953; both were supported by Hilla Rebay, doyenne of non-objective painting and co-founder of the Guggenheim Museum. As psychedelic pioneers and be-bop fanatics, they planted the seeds for much of our present visual world. Yet while Smith’s early films used geometric space as their field, Belson explored the more unbounded states described in titles like Meditation, Transmutation, and Samadhi.
From 1957 – 59, Belson collaborated with electronic music pioneer Henry Jacobs on the late night series Vortex: Experiments in Sound and Light at the San Francisco Planetarium. Direct antecedents of the 1960s lightshows, the concerts were vastly successful and attracted all of the “heads” of the Bay Area. Film historian Cindy Keefer writes: “In the blackness of the planetarium’s 65-foot dome, Belson created spectacular illusions, layering abstract patterns, lighting effects, and cosmic imagery, at times using up to 30 projection devices.”
Quite unexpectedly in 1999 Harry Smith scholar Rani Singh offered to take me by Belson’s dark and elegant San Francisco apartment, which easily could have been transplanted from 18th-century Kyoto. Belson had returned to making visual art in earnest a few years earlier. He was both wary and eager to show us a series of pastels that were a remarkable summation of his belief in non-objective art as an all-encompassing aesthetic, from the pyramids of Egypt and the temples of India, to the new optics of psychedelics, NASA space photography, and the inner visions of meditation and yoga practice.
Belson proved to be witty and gracious, and very much in touch with contemporary art (he was particularly fond of Clemente, Taaffe, and Tomaselli). I was invited back once or twice a year for long sessions of talking and viewing. I was not allowed to photograph or run a tape, but taking notes was permitted. Over the next five years I filled a dozen small notebooks with his remarks, and when he died in 2011 (at the age of 85) I realized he’d been dictating a kind of testament.
The Van Gogh syndrome is a myth that dies hard. We all want to believe somewhere there is an undiscovered genius, plying his or her revolutionary work in quiet obscurity. Belson is as close to that as I have encountered. As a visual artist his will be a posthumous career. I hope the 1,200 works carefully preserved by his wife Cathy Heinrich soon find the art audience that unknowingly needs the wisdom and grace they contain.
In my work I am proceeding from the belief that anything can be animated. I’m interested in what underlies reality.
My pastels are mechanisms, they have a mechanistic look to them. They work like machines, they rotate like wheels or gears, they connect up like lighting circuits. They parallel the motions in the cosmos where spheres are rotating around each other, and rotating themselves: the sun, the planets, everything is lined up and moving in circles. Like a pinball machine, you enter into the picture and move
about, trying to get to the center. I do everything
I can to make every thing connect up, to construct real events in an unreal world ... as opposed to most concepts of abstract or non-objectivism, which
in most cases are trying to get away from the physical world.
Everything in my paintings has to make sense physically. Even though it is ephemeral, it has to make sense from what we know of physics.
There are certain givens in my symbols that are based on practice, or just based on things as they are.
Non-Objectivism: To construct real events in an unreal world. As opposed to most concepts of abstraction where they are trying to get away from the physical world, in most cases.
Many of Kandinsky’s images are like visual letters, or a telegram.
I always felt that the concept of non-objectivism was only the beginning and not the end of artistic possibilities. None of the non-objective painters achieved the purity they were striving for.
Non-objective art wasn’t non-objective, people just didn’t yet know what the object was.
Each atom contains a simplified blueprint of what’s taking place in the cosmos. Protons and electrons moving around the nucleus, like planets around the sun. In this image green below is earth and sky above is blue, but that is not always the case. These relations and terms are relative in the work.
The diagrams of Robert Fludd are basically maps of heaven. What is more, they add the element of human experience. It makes it more than just a scientific quest of describing what’s there, but also, how do we connect up with it.
The tangibles and intangibles are mixed in the metaphysic. The image as a container of wisdom and knowledge.
I’ve tried to develop a sure sense of proportion so that if it’s not right, I can detect it. Granted I may not know what to do about it right away....
Intuition is the basis of my aesthetic judgment. The more you allow intuition to speak to you the closer you are to the truth, and the origins of the universe. I feel I’ve given up a lot of ways of thinking about certain things in order to be closer to intuition.
I try with my work to establish a sense of the monument: a spiritual location, like the great temples, the Acropolis. Symmetrical, beautiful lighting, the most advanced architectural thinking operates on a much higher plane than most modern art does.
The great cathedrals of Europe are light mechanisms that teach. Always exalted. The light always dramatic, colorful, meaningful. The dome a path to the next world.
I think the principles used in designing the cathedrals can be applied to painting: ground below and sky above, the use of colors & chromatics, composition that uses the basic shapes of rectangle, circle, and so on. I want to translate all those principles into my imagery.
It has to be an unusual color harmony. If it’s too prosaic I don’t want to deal with it.
I’m trying to make pictures that focus you and teach you about a knowledge that is beyond words,
or would be tedious to try to teach in words.
People don’t always have access to this type of thought, and when they do access it, it is often
so confusing and wrong.
It’s a glorious thing if you don’t expect an explanation.
I want my work to have that “ah” experience.
I gravitated to Be-bop: it was simply the most
radical thing at the time. Dissonance, a curious take on pop music.
Film was just a few years old when I was born so it seemed the most modern revolutionary medium I could use. My films are always arbitrary mindstuff: nothing domestic.
They always call me a Zen Buddhist in print. I’m not a Zen Buddhist. In fact it’s the one type of Buddhism I don’t like, too much Japanese discipline. I’ve checked out so many different philosophies and religions, just to explore them. So I’ve read a bunch of books on Buddhism: that doesn’t make me a Buddhist. But it certainly did influence me deeply, especially on a moral level.
In these drawings my desire is to capture both light and dark: two different dimensions presented simultaneously. When two lines meet up there is an exchange of energy.
I’ve been making what I would call “space mandalas”—a combination of the essential mandala form and the star field.
I get rid of a lot of scary things. I leave some in if they are archetypal. I figure you should know about those, be able to recognize them when you meet them.
There are monsters in my work. I used to despair at this. But then I realized I can’t eliminate them. They’re just part of the trip. The key is just don’t let them think they’re in control. The bardo plane contains all these awful gods and demons. They’re just projections.
I try for perfectly blissful imagery but there’s always some demonic shadow that enters in. I suppose it’s like the gargoyles in the cathedrals in Europe: one must include the grotesque or it will invite itself.
The pyramid shape in this instance is actually a highway. It leads to a great mandala hall, built not of any substance, but of glass-like air. Nothing we know of on this plane.
A wheel of life on earth. What you see when you’ve gone through the portal and you look back. Star gates. Places in the universe that lead you to other places. Light creatures. Nesting galaxies. Cosmic power stations. A way station. The place where two forms meet and impart their energy. This is where I think Rudolf Bauer was headed: the cosmic view.
The composition is a game plan; like an electronic game, a video game.
This one is called “Light Structure.” I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s also a Tree of Life: the ten points in the right positions, with the symbol of limitless light and energy at the top. It is also a row of chakras up the middle. It extends both up and out into space, spatially it goes in many directions. It’s multi-dimensional. There is a path that leads right to the center. The pyramid is also in there. It’s an image of balance and harmony. I read a book recently by a woman who analyzes symbolism of many cultures, and she said the symbols that are common to all cultures are the circle, the square, the triangle, the cross, and the spiral—and all are in this image. It would also make a wonderful stained glass window. I didn’t mention the Kabbalah or chakras because I want people to discover that for themselves.
I preferred to give it a more anonymous title, like “Light Structure.” I really feel like this image is the culmination of fifty years of work and thought—
I know it sounds silly to make such a claim, but
that is how I feel about it.
The picture, the surface, the proportions: all these things are intimately tied up with subject matter. There are ways of avoiding this, but you seem to get further away from the essence of the picture.
I’m interested in the Hindu system of sacred geometry: Vastu. But at the same time you ignore these things because if you recognize them
you break them.
I was looking at a National Geographic article on jellyfish and manta rays: they really are diagrams
of the galaxies.
This pastel depicts seed-like things creating themselves. The creator creates once, then allows things to create themselves.
It’s an enigmatic allegory, even I don’t know
what it means.
I was very inspired by Islamic prayer carpets. I have several good books on them. This pastel depicts a niche with a hanging light; blue pillars of wisdom hold up the triangle: the vase of immortality. I’d like to have some of these pastels woven as rugs in India.
I’m trying to depict the immaterial. I definitely belong to the American Transcendentalist
school of painters.
Sometimes you have to risk making mistakes to find out what the message is. Mistakes are very valuable. You find ideas you never had before. There’s lots of erasing in some of these, but the works must never look overworked or strained or forced. They tell me what to do. I hardly make a move unless I’m quite certain that is what they want me to do.
I can’t tell you how many times I have given up out of lack of interest from the outside world.
A dark room, quiet music. Works not hung on a wall but resting on a low shelf. That is the type of environment where I see my work. A formal arrangement around it like vases or flowers or personal objects. The painting should have light aimed at it. This would look best with some of my more formal designs, like Guardian/Guide. And I don’t mean to turn it into a sacred shrine.
An image of San Francisco Bay thousands of years ago or in the future, when all is rock again, and above that the world of fire.
I’ve always been embarrassed by being on underground film programs and shown with people whose work just made me uncomfortable to be seen in their company. They would go for nasty seamy stuff and I was always going for the stars. I had to back out from all of it.
I did not start with anything really special going for me, just an aptitude for graphic arts. I wasn’t expecting to find any of the things I eventually found. I felt that if I kept working with the same design over and over it would lead me somewhere new—it’s not about repetition.
Shadows represent negative matter. The light has been kept from it. Therefore it is a different type of matter than we have been dealing with.
All kinds of psychedelic research took place in this apartment. But I was not just a bohemian pursuing
a Beat dream. I was a professional artist
plying my trade.
It becomes a question of, what are you doing,
what are you thinking about? But then the things you are thinking about when you work aren’t always very interesting.
Printed vs. drawn: I want to work in the space between these things.
Mountain High: These are the thought forms of a mountain, if you were even wondering what a mountain was thinking.
The way lines are “performed” are a very significant part of my ideas and work. I’m an American Precisionist. Delicacy, clarity, sharpness.
A lot of times I arrive at a place by getting rid of what’s there.
Tibetan ghost traps. Dream catchers. A web. I like that idea. A place where dreams go. A bit of dark matter from the universe that we carry with us. If you’re passing through these spaces it’s fine, but if you decide to stay it’s not so fine.
This is an alchemical graph of how the universe is set up. I took a medieval diagram and followed it closely. I have no real desire to say anything about the hermetic meaning of any of my drawings. I hope they express themselves in a “clean” way.
Beauty, I like beauty. I can’t help it.
About 90% of these pastels are done with my fingers. They’re finger paintings. Trying to fix a mistake might set up a whole new area I hadn’t considered.
A smudge might reveal an emanation. It’s all
very subtle—deciding what should go in and what should go out.
When I’m drawing I lay my pastels out like the keyboard of an organ. I don’t want to waste energy when working, at my age. I like that orderly quality. Some are soft, some firm, some oily. I use all types, Sennelier, Winsor Newton, Derwent pencils, etc.
I see myself in everything I do now, the self in every which way: self-centered, self-effacing, self-involved. Basically, it’s all self-portraiture.
In other lifetimes I was a medieval manuscript illuminator, working hunched over a desk in a
small cabin in Germany. Also Tibet, and ancient Egypt. There are so many ways an artist can be an actor in his work, he can visit any time period. I don’t go around with any of these ideas firmly ensconced in my work but I can entertain these notions at any time.
Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances: he showed some sides of himself that reveal very complex sonic effects, off into outer space. My recent film Epilogue is like a full blown symphonic work.
Tekkies will never be artists—all this technology and electronics is just a lot of bad ideas. They’re throwing ideas like coal on the fire and nothing comes of it. I don’t mind the distinction of “fine art.” It will keep the different intellectual levels apart. Let them have their obnoxious media.
A lot of imagery comes about from seeing things in a knowledgeable way: knowing what you’re looking at. I spend a lot of looking on the work. I have this mystical gaze that allows me to see if there are any hidden structures.
Vastu sutra drawings, vase outlines, temple architecture. You could superimpose these things over my drawings and find they match up.
It can be quite mind blowing if you have a mind to blow. Not everyone meets that criteria.
Artists must have a partnership with materiality.
The emergent properties of materiality are the ground of an artist’s aesthetic resources.
Emergent properties are those that cannot be reduced. It blocks reductionism. Reductionism
is the enemy of the artist.
Art is a kind of equation: properties vs. capacities. Properties are actual, capacity is real but not actual.
My works go to a lot of different places, you don’t just go to one place and stay there. I don’t come out and say what the final place is. I leave it to you.
The place is enigmatic, although some spaces
within it are more enigmatic than others.
There are a lot of jokes in the work.
I read a lot of stories of Indian saints and holy men—I really love those stories. Yogananda’s Autobiography was a big influence on me in terms of projected spiritual experiences. Hindu teachings allow for alternate universes existing simultaneously—Meher Baba talks about this. Meher Baba: I learned a lot from him. I also
learned I didn’t want to go there.
A burning spot of beautiful coloration, a ring or aura around it. It’s called one-pointedness. It had a lot to do with the serious yoga routine that I followed. Now I’ve gone beyond that. Not that I disparage it.
It just isn’t uppermost in my thoughts.
I complete the work and I’m not even certain what I’ve depicted there. Hidden formations.
Thousands of tiny evaluations and choices and ideas, faster than the speed of thought. A condensation of innumerable moments of understanding, following deliberative or spontaneous actions. A little of both, actually. A question of identification. Otherwise you would go right past what you are working for, if you don’t recognize it.
These questions of the universe are not really knowable: to be aware of the questions seems to be enough. There’s so much ridiculous simplification.
People say nice things about my work but they never say anything about the work itself. I’ve got a reputation but it seems that’s all I’ve got. There’s no support in terms of ideas on the work.
How to discuss yoga and spiritual concerns in my work without being fussy-headed about it?
The creative mind has its own logic to it. It isn’t totally illogical.
The study of doorways I find very inspiring. When it comes to basic architecture I think humans have certain models built into their DNA.
This neighborhood is really sunk into my consciousness and shows up in a lot of things I do. This view out the window looks like French art: the sunshine, the little boats. Impressionism: it’s an influence on my work even at its most abstract.
I spend a lot of time watching the birds in the garden outside my door. They are very ancient beings. I love their consciousness. I realize that if birds had arms and hands they would have become the dominant species long ago.
I’m not afraid of bringing my sense of design or illustration to the art. I make full use of the graphic tool kit: perspective, illusion, textures, colors, juxtaposition. This is the toolbox of an artist. I see no reason to abandon them. To throw away shading, for example, would be a great mistake. Perspective is a wonderful thing—why not use it? Realism also. I have no problem making use of realism in my work from time to time: I just don’t want to live there.
Whenever I see ambiguity I jump at it. I like to bring out as many different meanings as I can.
For the artist you go through the whole story of art history in whatever manner you can. You have to know Egyptian art, Oriental, Renaissance, etc. I consider myself a modern artist only because I live in modern times. What I do artists have always done.
I do all my thinking in images. I’ve come to have a complete mistrust of words, and all the fallacious possibilities they contain. It’s so easy to get worked up over them. Just a few words can create such a problem.
I want to create an image that emerges from the void: you see it because it isn’t there.
I think of everything I do in a drawing as a kind of performance; they are made up of different effects or techniques. I just call them tricks. Every trick of mine is now employed in every drawing. I’m presenting elements with a certain look and character, with occasional suggestions of three-dimensionality. The drawings are just a picture of me at work.
I feel I’m slowly evolving towards some essential aspect of my personality, which feels like it’s just on the horizon. Maybe the horizon is just old age and death. I’m getting to be more like my adolescent self than ever: somebody I lost sight of along the way.
I’m someone who likes to look at the same thing, day after day. Instead of being boring, it’s more intense. My whole life is very repetitious, but that heightens my focus and concentration. I’m really only interested in the inner workings of the human mind, and I don’t have to go outside to experience that. And the feedback I get from the artwork itself informs that state of mind.
These days I’m pretty much taken up with my own mind. I take it where it’s been leading, take it where it wants to go, but now with a sense of urgency.
I’ve eliminated distractions.
I’m glad I’ve lived to be 77 years old, because I feel like at this point in my life I’m really able to synthesize all of the different concerns I’ve had over my lifetime. It’s all fallen into place and it’s almost as if I can’t make a wrong move these days.
I’m not afraid of death, but I dislike the idea of leaving behind a corpse, which is going to be an inconvenience to other people. I wish there could be some way I would disappear altogether.
I really just feel like staying in all the time now
to make these drawings. I have no desire to be involved with anything else. I guess if I’m going
to turn my back on the world, I’ve picked a pretty good time to do it.
“Death and Transfiguration”
“Alchemical Geometric Figure (Allegory)”
“Tibetan Solar Eclipse”
“Circle of Fire”
All works 2003.
Pastel, prismacolor, and ink on paper, 8.5 × 11 inches.
All images © 2014 Estate of Jordan Belson
Raymond Foye is a curator, wrier, and publisher who lives in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. He recently organized an exhibition of the paintings of experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson for the Matthew Marks Gallery.Jordan Belson