14 December 2011

Other Systems

Willem de Kooning, "Excavation," 1950
One hot May afternoon in 1991, during my first year in New York, I got mixed up on the trains and wound up in Harlem, where, upon exiting the station below, I came upon a busy street scene and seemed to be the only white guy around.  A man instantly approached me and said, "I have two things to say to you.  One:  today is Malcolm X's birthday.  And two, you're in the wrong neighborhood."  What I should have said was, "How do you know?" but instead I am sure I gave my best 'concerned' look and he laughed, saying, "I don't think I'll kill you today but I would suggest you cross the street over there and head back to where you think you should be going."   

This little story of being messed with came to mind this week as I tore through Frederico Garcia Lorca's "Poet in New York," the Spanish poet's famous recollection his year in the city, 1929-1930.  A surrealist masterpiece; and twinning it with a Sunday walk through the de Kooning retrospective at the MOMA gave the reading, if you will (and you better) a gloss that I really appreciated.  Whereas de Kooning was still painting representationally some time after Lorca had left the city and been executed by Spanish Nationalist forces, one could feel the pressure of abstraction and at times surrealism begin to emerge, echoing a literary force that had led the way.

Language predating image in this instance pleased me for a few reasons, not the least of which was that New York itself is such an overwhelming deluge of images--exhausting, relentless, disparate, maddening images--that it was with no small amount of pride that the Word, the radicalized image the Jewish people used to smash the idols of physically crafted, humanly rendered representation, came first.

My loneliness as a Jew among those beautiful de Koonings, my existential grief at forever being aware of the worship of the image (not just in our society but at all times) while knowing that truth is found in image's absence, was validated.

In "Blind Panorama of New York" Lorca wrote, "True grief that keeps things awake is a small infinite burn in the innocent eyes of other systems."  I know that innocent burn.  It was validated by teachers, parents, friends, musicians, sculptors, painters and authors throughout my life, those who also have sought comfort in their grief at a world-imperfect, weighted down by its guilt of just not getting it right; a darkness illumined by the slow burn of the flame that leads from grief to redemption--the other system.

Watching de Kooning go from representation to abstract expression was not unlike what the children of Israel must have felt at Sinai, being made to excavate the very souls with which they approached the mountain, and rid them of their adherence to the false gods of representation, as beautiful and alluring as they were.  Even the words had the potential to be a dangerous representation, an approximation at best, for what ought to be truly known and understood.

There I sat on Sunday, in front of this remarkably intoxicating painting called "Excavation," aware of the roiling waters of my very soul, yet again pierced by the wake of genius.  And then, the memory of a hot day in May 1991:  "I don't think I'll kill you today but I would suggest you cross the street over there and head back to where you think you should be going."

Better Lorca:  "New York of filth, New York of wires and death.  What angel do you carry hidden in your cheek?  What perfect voice will speak the truths of wheat?  Who the terrible dreams of your stained anemones?"

Perfect beauty is everywhere--from the perceived, threatening reality of a street corner encounter to the abstract expressed in a cool, crowded gallery on a Sunday afternoon.

"A small infinite burn in the innocent eyes of other systems."

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