Stephen Maine - A Respectful Distance <|>
In the opening paragraph of his appreciation of the paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder, published in The New York Review of Books in 1990 and pegged to the retrospective seen at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, John Updike luxuriates in the specialized vocabularies of the conservator and the actuary. A word guy from way back, he brings his linguistic enthusiasms to bear on describing the notoriously unstable physical condition of Ryder’s canvases:
His paintings are subject to “traction crackle,” “varnish slide,” and “perennial plastic flow”; they suffer from an ongoing chemical activity that insurance companies term “inherent vice.”1
It is a comical, ironically microscopic introduction to his discussion of the otherworldly Ryder, the dark prince of 19th-century American painters, a true eccentric whom Marsden Hartley called “among the first citizens of the moon.” In citing professional nomenclature, Updike underscores the inadequacy of language to convey the haunting power of Ryder’s indifference to convention and craft, his obdurate weirdness. The effect is to support Georges Braque’s contention that “the only thing of value in art is that which cannot be explained.”
We lob words at pictures, trying to deal with them, shake them down, figure them out, make them behave. We linger at the margins, in their shadows, like we’re staking them out. We make our move, like a SWAT team. We mount an assault on the fortress of the image from our surrounding positions, out in the wilderness of morphemes. Words are clumsy weapons for the job, inherently inadequate to deal with art, which occupies a place outside of language. But they are what we’ve got to work with, and the art of description can provide a portal to the thrills and boredom of visual experience.
In his 1975 collection, Hazard the Painter, poet William Meredith illustrates the public demeanor and private emotional circumstances of a painter entering late middle age. In “Hazard’s Optimism,” the protagonist of the narrative enlivens his bourgeois existence by parachuting from an airplane, a metaphor for painting complete with the suggestion of imminence that hangs over the process:
He is in charge of morale in a morbid time.
He calls out to the sky, his voice
the voice of an animal that makes not words
but a happy incorrigible noise, not
of this time. The colors of autumn
are becoming audible through the haze.2
Ekphrasis, the practice of imbuing description with the spirit of the thing being described, was so valued by the Greeks that they named it. The modern-day housepaint store is a vast repository of descriptive names for colors, each of which is meant to capture some essential quality that distinguishes it from many other, similar colors. The Benjamin Moore inventory currently includes such evocatively named hues as Neon Celery, Flamingo’s Dream, Icy Moon Drops, Durango Dust, Pearl Harbor.

(Crayola rejects:
Vanna White
Selsen Blue
Soylent Green
Forever Amber
Johnny Walker Black)

That words and images can offer analogous if essentially dissimilar pleasures is clear from the writing of visual artists. That genre sometimes bridges the gap between verbal and visual through parallels in tone and means--whether playful or serious, wanton or restrained, speculative or empirical.
In his 1968 essay, “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art,” Robert Smithson notes a characteristic voice in the writing of several artists. Carl Andre’s compacted language (“a rubble of syncopated syllables”) mirrors the narrativeless materialism of his sculpture. In his essay on Lee Bontecou, Donald Judd’s syntax is “a brooding depth of gleaming surfaces.” Dan Flavin’s autobiographical essay is marked by a “disarming uselessness” resembling the “sullen electricities” of his “lights.” And so on: Smithson the pseudoscientist bears out his own observation by taxonomizing the rhetorical methods of his contemporaries.3
It’s easy and fun, and you can try it at home:
“Two-Way Mirror Power,” Dan Graham’s 1996 statement on his Two Adjacent Pavilions (1978-1981), is a brief piece that moves the reader from claustrophobic and oppressive imagery and rhythms, where “surveillance power is given to the corporate tower,” to an expansive final paragraph in which Graham “places” his work in the context of landscape architecture. Graham’s perceptually complex, spatially confounding self-reflecting planes paradoxically call greater attention to their setting.4
Dozens of infinitives comprise Richard Serra’s Verb List (1967-68). Like the deceptively weighty forms the sculptor is known for, the list5 sits there on the page, hammering in the reader’s head and seething with the inner tension of implied action:
…to fire
to flood
to smear
to rotate
to swirl
to support
to hook
to suspend
to spread…
Ad Reinhardt typifies the classic mid-20th-century artist’s reductivist tendencies. Also, he loved words. His beautiful 1955 statement is a dance of affirmation and negation that defines painting as much by what it is not as by what it is:
Clarity, completeness, quintessence, quiet. No noise, no schmutz, no schmertz, no Fauve schwarmerei. Perfection, passiveness, consonance, consummateness. No palpitations, no gesticulation, no grotesquerie.6
The result is a freighted absence.
As these writers know, pleasure is the way in. The best we can do is to take pleasure in the language we use to deal with the pleasure we get from images. In The Horse’s Mouth, the protagonist Gulley Jimson articulates every painter’s bittersweet awareness that his work will never look as good—fresh, vivid, lucid—as it does when it is still wet.7 Maybe that is why painting does not die: painters will keep on painting in order to have wet canvases to look at.
We continue to write and talk about images, to attempt the impossible using imperfect tools, because the effort offers pleasures of its own: of finding a diction in sympathy with the mindset of the work at hand, an intonation that suits the humor of the subject, a rhythm that follows its lead. We call this “nailing it” and there are few greater pleasures.
Answering pleasure with pleasure is a key to the belletristic approach to criticism, one to which artists who turn to criticism in an effort to help steer that conversation might be best attuned.

1 Reprinted in Still Looking: Essays on American Art (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)
2 William Meredith, Hazard, the Painter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975)
3 Reprinted in The Writings of Robert Smithson (New York: New York University Press, 1979)
4 Dan Graham, Two-Way Mirror Power: Selected Writings by Dan Graham on His Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999)
5 Reprinted in Richard Serra Writings Interviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)
6 Reprinted in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. by Barbara Rose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)
7 Joyce Carey, The Horse’s Mouth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944)