PRINT May 1983


We may see what we call the sun, but we have lost Helios forever, and the great orb of the Chaldeans still more. We have lost the cosmos, by coming out of responsive connection with it, and this is our chief tragedy. What is our petty little love of tragedy. What is our petty little love of nature—Nature!!—compared to the ancient magnificent living with the cosmos, and being honored by the cosmos!
—D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse, 1932

AT THIS QUICK AND WEIGHTLESS moment late in the Century of Abstraction, as memory is being edited and transferred to electronic banks, artists from three generations are building an inventory of figurative images and references in which identity seems a form of emulsion, the individual a new kind of satellite. To Walt Whitman’s songs of the self, there is now an odd celebration of absence; court etiquette has been exchanged for a paparazzo’s maxim––that it is glamorous to appear only briefly, more glamorous not to appear at all. The era of the “knock knock” joke may be over. The style is no one’s home, and the discussion is on the nature of non-being.

The body, of course, has not been a stranger to this century’s art. It never really vanished nor has it often appeared whole. Through fission, through fusion, disfigurement, automatism, fragmentation, and on, the figure’s presence or apparent absence has remained a safekeeper of evidence, at once the changeable model of mutable consciousness and a Rosetta stone with which to decipher a mystery in transit. Mind, however, is not the same as consciousness, for it is boundless. The word is our metaphor for light, for perpetual voyage through vision. In art, mind’s evolving symbol is landscape. Landscape is not necessarily nature, it is not necessarily architecture: it is view. And the Sphinx in the desert says, and the gray rocks at Stonehenge say, that it is also and ultimately cosmos.

When the urgency to explore prevails, artists—from the Dutch genre painters to the American Luminists—have honored light. Vermeer’s poem is not written on the letter the girl is reading. Photography—a reality of light, an illusion of reality—helped create the 19th-century epic of the last frontier. Early photographs of the American West were pictures of a perspective on the brink: horizons soon to be interrupted, earth soon to be paved, rock monuments soon to be outdone by skyscrapers, and occasionally the image of an individual dwarfed by nature, seated on a promontory like Poussin’s John of Patmos, awaiting revelation. A century later Barnett Newman’s cabalistic zip—a strip of light in a field of color—is again that John of Patmos, only unbounded, out of landscape, straining gravity, as cosmos-filling identity.

Helios to helium: it is to this etymology that Lawrence objects so strongly. When we look at the sun and say helium, “all we see is a scientific little luminary, dwindled to a ball of blazing gas,” and though this may counterfeit a sense of knowing, or seem an implement of power, it cancels poetry and we are thus insufficiently alive. But with the concept of Helios, source of light and energy, Lawrence says, we have our cosmos, our memory of the past and of the future. What he did not believe but does demonstrate is that we can know helium and still utter Helios. We can still look at the sun and think of Icarus, and go to the moon remembering Ulysses.

Lawrence does none the less underscore the masochism in our ongoing trajectory. That progress has its perversities is axiomatic. As mind and view expand, we seem insecure. With industry came the practice of standardization, and soon after, in perfect irony, relativism reissued our longstanding sentence of doubt.

This incremental road toward obsolescence, the fascination with the invisible in both space and time, in the past and especially in the future, has stretched dimensions way past self-evidence. From the telescope the rocket, from the microscope the chip. The pictures of the earth we received from outer space were devastating. They are so mute. No pyramid, no Everest, no Sears Building: nothing registered. Though science (not to mention the look of stars or other planets) told us to expect as much, it is likely that we were emotionally unprepared. The imperative of perspective, in both the realm of appearances and that of immanence, is no longer horizontal or panoramic but vectorial. The city is archaeology in space not in sediment, with new structures being built not around or alongside existing ones but on top of them, sometimes only available—only visible from—above; or else it is the subterranean mall.

Memory too is perspective complete with its vanishing point, forgetting. Memory too is vectorial—it encompasses past and future. Most science fiction has remained at what is essentially the turbo stage for about a century, and when it describes “other intelligences” it simply allegorizes values, taste, and technology. Communicating successfully with the other intelligence is usually the epiphany—then Dorothy goes home. The other intelligence is the platonic twin, the alter ego; difference exists to prove sameness. There really isn’t a past or the future, there is synthesis—memory. Electroproust.

Mind unlike memory is irreducible and keeps expanding as consciousness adjusts. From sunlit landscapes come ideal figures and clear projections. In a fog there is heightened introspection—identities slipping through surface. There are no proportions. The compass becomes abstract. For the argonaut away from home there must be a map of nowhere.

Lisa Liebmann writes regularly for Artforum.