New York

Spencer Finch


Henry David Thoreau famously admonished that we too often lead lives of “quiet desperation.” His remedy was to live deeply and reflexively, sucking life’s “marrow,” and, if need be, communing with the Walden woods in the relative seclusion of meditative if quixotic faux isolation (he was literally a stone’s throw from his nearest neighbors). For Emily Dickinson, another archetypal American recluse, a purposeful and startlingly conscious life was to be found within the walls of her Amherst, Massachusetts, birthplace. In fifty-five years she rarely ventured out, communicating chiefly by means of cryptic notes and gnomic poems, of which, at the time of her death, only ten had been published.

For Spencer Finch, the charge to live simply and deliberately translates into vital pilgrimage rather than focused immobility. After forays to famous places including Vienna, Cape Canaveral, Loch Ness, Los Alamos, and the site of ancient Troy, the artist chose Stockholm and Amherst as destinations for the making of his most recent show. The Magic Hour, Stockholm, May 8, 2003 (stalking Ingmar Bergman) (all works 2004) is the result of Finch’s attempt to seize and reproduce the ineffable bluish glow outside the director’s apartment, here approximated by means of overlapping and precisely calibrated prismatic stained glass panels. As light streamed in through the gallery’s window, the hazy Swedish twilight was uncannily manifested in a white cube in New York. Conceived not as resemblance but as sublime phenomenological effect, works such as this and the monumental Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004) forsake iconicity for a kind of poetic and hallucinatory indexicality.

To make Sunlight, Finch assembled one hundred fluorescent tubes that together re-create the precise quality of the light he experienced in the poet’s yard before a cloud passed overhead. We are finally presented with a makeshift cloud—a mess of murkily brilliant theatrical filters held together with clothespins—that refracts the intense luminosity into a complementary pallid haze. This roomful of existential optics would be unthinkable without Dickinson’s work, to which Finch alludes in the show’s title, “As much of noon as I can take between my finite eyes.” This line is culled from a poem in which Dickinson describes peering “upon the window pane” to the world beyond, at once evoking Emerson’s transcendental “transparent eyeball” and Thoreau’s allegory of the mutable pond wherein a sheet of frozen ice produces and sustains a reflection before ceding to wintry gray opacity. Matter reveals and conceals, depending on the season, or, as Finch suggests in Forty-Nine Minutes (after Kawabata), the time of day.

Smaller and subtler, Forty-Nine Minutes comprises seven digital C-prints that shade from a landscape seen through a window to the reflection of a domestic interior, as the failing light changes every seven minutes and the clear pane of glass becomes a dense, dark mirror. Blindness thus becomes the precondition for another kind of sight, of which Thoreau, for one, would have heartily approved: “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful,” he wrote, “but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Suzanne Hudson