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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
Critics Page

Writing on Art and Muscle Memory

The postscript to Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) focuses on a population of albino crocodiles thriving in a tropical reptile park near the paleolithic paintings of Chauvet cave. Herzog suggests that the mutant crocodiles are born of radioactive runoff from a nearby powerplant, and he imagines the creatures climbing the river valley to reach Chauvet cave to stare at the ancient paintings, looking “back into the abyss of time” as modern archaeologists do. Is this just a dalliance with science fiction, or is there truth to the idea that the crocodiles, with their primordial gaze, might be perfect critics?

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Though there are certainly advantages to writing about art as an artist, I am mostly concerned with the challenges, chief among which is the gulf between sensation and language. It is not that artists are the only ones who struggle with this scarcity of words to describe the nuances of the felt world, but that they have been taught—in opposition to other fields—to transfer their sensory experience back into the sensory world without the mediation of language. Between input and output are fuzzy concepts and considerations: composition, alchemy, color—words that only hint at processes reliant on intuition, memory, and feeling.

Face to face with another artist’s output, it seems natural to employ techniques learned in the studio to force different viewpoints. There is a sort of acrobatic nature to these actions: squinting to clarify color, leaning in over the security line at a museum to see detail, or twisting to view the composition upside down. Often, I find myself pressing my face against gallery walls in an attempt to glimpse a sliver of the back of a canvas, knowing that it holds secrets to the work’s production. Some paintings, overly saturated in the midday sun, beg to be returned to on a rainy day, while others disappear in the gloom. This set of tools, gathered through direct experience in artmaking, might seem to present an advantageous position for the artist as critic, but sometimes they only succeed in revealing distractions, passages in a piece that destroy its illusion, or drown out the rest of the composition with their visual noise. It was only after minutes of scanning the surface of an Agnes Martin painting, for example, that I noticed a tiny orange drip, its downward velocity betraying the careful lateral movements of the composition. Now, I can only remember that one fleck of pigment, eclipsing everything at the peripheries.

Edgar Degas, <em>Portrait of a Woman in Gray</em>, c.1865. Oil on canvas, 36 x 28 1/2 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Edgar Degas, Portrait of a Woman in Gray, c.1865. Oil on canvas, 36 x 28 1/2 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

What brings me back to a painting is often a feeling, like a nagging muscle memory, of wanting not only to see, but to sense the painting’s facture. At the Met, I always return to Degas’s Portrait of a Woman in Gray (c. 1865), and the strange way in which the sitter’s black scarf seems to dominate the picture. Looking in closely, to the point where the weave of the canvas is visible and catching against the streaks of thinned oil, I find my wrist twitching with the desire to repeat the artist’s marks, anticipating the slight give of the fabric against the brushstroke, the soft friction of the bristles as they run out of pigment. It follows that my eyes’ movements are bound by this black shape that blends into the woman’s bonnet and resembles a figure holding an umbrella against the wind or wielding a scythe high in the air. Other portions of the painting seem secondary—the sketched-in right hand, the unfinished left eye—the whole composition just scaffolding for this burst of gesture. The tugging at my wrist lasts well after I leave the picture, each tightening of my fingers against the imaginary brush pulling the scarf back into focus.

Maybe this tugging sense could be written as tropism (from the Greek tropos, “turning”), which Nathalie Sarraute has used to describe those movements that “slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak, the feelings we manifest, are aware of experiencing, and able to define.” Thus sensations felt in front of artworks cannot be accurately transcribed, but exist as latent perceptions, not quite memories, not quite desires, always beneath what is tangible. The challenge might then be to extend that chain of intangibles backward and forward, to place oneself halfway between the artist’s sensation and that of the reader. To say, of Degas, that the anxious gesture of the scarf leads to a larger truth about the sitter, allows us to see past her amiable expression to consider the tense creases of fabric at her armpit, the way her fingers seem to nervously grasp at her dress, and the overall stiffness of her pose.

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There is a fiction at the core of Herzog’s postscript. The crocodiles are not the result of radioactive mutation—they were actually shipped from Louisiana and are, in fact, alligators. But suppose they were to climb up to the cave and find the paintings. Imagine the creatures looking up at the cave walls. Alligator has its root in the Latin lacertum, the muscular part of the arm. What sensations would be transmitted to those bodies lacking pigment, that pure primordial muscle, traveling beneath the animist paintings across the bones and bear tracks of the cave? And would it manifest in some slithering, sprawling trace in the mud?

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues