PRINT January 2018


Thomas Crow’s No Idols

Robert Smithson, Blind Angel, 1961, oil on canvas, 44 × 53".

No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art, by Thomas Crow. Sydney: Power Publications, 2017. 144 pages.

ALTHOUGH THIS BOOK—accurately described as a “polemic”—is written with a sense of the shortcomings of contemporary art discourse, the starting point of its questioning is a blind spot at the advent of art history: We have too easily taken for granted the “secularization of all the Crucifixions, Madonnas, miracle-workings and Bible stories that make up such an enormous proportion of Western art before the modern era.” In the comparatively recent shift to looking at “religious behaviour and belief, along with theological meaning . . . as cultural artefacts to be dissected and decoded with clinical detachment,” Thomas Crow suggests that we have neglected the importance of religion not only to the art of the past but also to its transformations during modernism and after.

To think through the questions raised by this proposition, Crow constructs a countergenealogy of twentieth-century art, setting out a short history of artists whose work retains a religious dimension: the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, the New Zealand painter (of, inter alia, Bible texts) Colin McCahon, the Land artist Robert Smithson, the Light and Space artist James Turrell, and the political printmaker Sister Corita Kent. All of them seek to turn an abiding religious impulse into art, thus aligning their work with older debates about the relationship between naturalism, divine immanence, and idolatry.

Before he begins to plot this lineage, however, Crow provides an instructive reading of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s The White Tablecloth, 1731–32, to tease out the approach to art he is arguing for. Chardin’s humble depiction of a tablecloth makes clear the centrality to his thesis of a form of everyday “lowliness” that can be traced back to the ascetically minded Roman Catholic faction known as the Jansenists and their abhorrence of idolatry. Their worldview is of particular consequence for visual art (which is “predisposed to the idolatrous”) because it resists the temptations not only of iconolatry, the worship of the image, but also of iconoclasm, which likewise attributes to the image a supernatural power, even if it does so only in order to destroy it.

Turning to the twentieth century, Crow connects Jansenist rigor to the generation of American painters that was pushed “toward an ethic of anti-iconic immanence” in the rejection of socialist-realist figuration. To consider just one of his examples, Crow looks at the way that Rothko, after a series of Miró-like abstractions, turned to Meyer Schapiro’s 1939 study of the Christian art of the eleventh century in the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain. In the Mozarabic style of the manuscript pages depicting the apocalypse that Schapiro discussed, Rothko found inspiration for a religious art that, while being abstract, was not simply outside or beyond the world. Expanding on Rothko’s wish to overcome “finite associations,” Crow speaks of how the “original components of the illuminated Mozarabic page survive and flourish in a transformed universe of counter-idolatrous forms.” In Rothko’s works they emerge in the rough geometric shapes of Untitled (Multiform), 1948, before dissolving in the “fundamental reversal of figure and ground” in the artist’s late work—not least, of course, in the canvases he made between 1964 and ’67 for the explicitly religious setting of the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Rothko was Jewish, Turrell and McCahon were Quaker or Quaker aligned, Smithson nondoctrinally Christian, and Kent, of course, a Catholic nun, but Crow sees a shared religious impulse behind all of their work. Of Rothko, McCahon, and Smithson, he writes, “All three rehearsed some early anti-naturalistic episode of image-making in order to insert themselves into the predominantly Christian lineage of Western art history. Each then proceeded to adapt these points of departure into an iconic work that carried an implicit refusal of the idolatrous implications of Renaissance humanism.” But equally, as Kent’s work makes clear, such art is not concerned with any transcendent or unrepresentable sublime that lies outside of this world. Rather—and this is why it involves art—the form of spirituality that is central to these artists’ work is inseparable from appearance itself. This is why there is such a play on light throughout Crow’s analyses: in the whiteness of the tablecloth in the Chardin, the projector beams of early Turrell, the floating colored spots of Kent. It is not a light on something or pointing to something but light as such, the light that makes up the things of this world.

But it is also a light between things, light as a crack within the merely material: between the floating dark squares of the Rothko Chapel paintings, within the scratchy white waverings of McCahon’s letters, in the phosphorescent cosmic twinkle of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970. For what religion—and especially religion parsed through art—points to is not some transcendence beyond appearance, but appearance as its own transcendence. Crow’s word for it, taken from contemporary theologian David Bentley Hart, is not metaphysical but hyper-physical. It is what the most famous of all the Jansenists, Blaise Pascal, meant when he spoke of the way that salvation lies precisely in knowing one’s fallenness, by which he meant that, divorced from an infinite and unknowable divinity, we are utterly embedded among the things of this world. And thus Crow also advocates a kind of amor fati, or resignation to our fate. All told, this unhip, even conservative little book arguing for the “inseparability of the Western art tradition from its founding in Christian observance” is also the most surprisingly contemporary thing I have read about art for a long time.

Rex Butler is a Professor of Art History at Monash University, Melbourne.