Friday, September 11, 2020

'Elegance and Modesty on the Human Scale'

“He cares about indifference. He is fanatically cool headed.”

The first sentence is almost a paradox. The not-quiteness lends it a little tang. The second is more like an oxymoron, though it states a truth most of us recognize. Interesting artists suggest. They apply paint with a small brush, not a putty knife. What they leave out counts. On Twitter, Levi Stahl posted a favorite oil by Fairfield Porter, Calm Morning (1961). When I see a small conifer against a blank background – a lake, the side of a house – I think of Porter’s painting. Two-thirds of the canvas is water, almost featureless.  
The section of Porter’s Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935-1975 (ed. Rackstraw Downes, 1979) titled “From the Short Reviews [1951-1959]” looks on the page like a collection of aphorisms. It reads that way too. The editor gives no context. The sentences quoted at the top might have been inspired by any painter’s work. Despite the enduring tedium of Romantic clichés, artists are cool-headed. They are spectators at the creation of their own work. Porter’s sentences instantly make me think, first, of the title of Nabokov’s short story “Cloud, Castle, Lake”(1941), which includes this sentence: “It was a pure, blue lake, with an unusual expression of its water. In the middle, a large cloud was reflected in its entirety.”

Both of Porter's sentences, the second in particular, remind me of George Santayana, a natural-born non-participant, one of nature’s spectators. On this date, Sept. 11, in 1941, he writes in a letter from Italy to Charles Augustus Strong:

“When people speak of ‘lightness’ and ‘clarity of design’ in Gothic churches, I feel that they are picking out the faults: the true beauties are loftiness, intricacy, mystery, and tenderness of detail, so that one lovely nook after another is found nestling in the vast ill-defined whole. ‘Clarity’ should go not with ‘lightness’ but with elegance and modesty on the human scale.”

No comments: