Narrate examines famous works of art through an imaginative lens, letting go of formal art history. Instead, it seeks to bring works of art alive—to bring them down to an intimate, human level.
Agnes Martin, Flower in the Wind, 1963
What is it about the desert that makes me feel so at peace? Maybe it is its subtle, sun-faded colors. Its boundlessness. The fact that it is at once monotonous and variegated. The way the rows upon rows of sagebrush slide out into the horizon, greens and silvers fading into silvers and tans. There are no harsh ruptures—only gently shifting gradations. The yawning distances between here and that farthest mountain are fully visible because the land stretches and rolls out as if exhibiting itself to me. Nothing is hidden. There are no secrets. Even the distinction between land and sky is softened with snow-capped white mountains that reach up to kiss the white clouds that likewise sneak down to nuzzle the highest mountain peaks. Nothing is static; everything is in flux. But it is gentle. Like the subtle but constant tugging of the sea’s currents.
I suppose that’s it. The quiet, subtle flux of the desert is but one example of a larger phenomenon. Just one manifestation of this larger life truth, for the ocean is like this too. Its rough, crashing waves that push and pull. Its swirling, ever-moving water whose color slowly changes as the eye moves from shoreline to horizon line. The blurring between land and sea and sky. In tighter spaces we lose sight of this truth. Transitions are often sharp and violent. The colors of our everyday experiences have a frenetic energy, whether you’re the leaf on a sagebrush or a grain of sand or a wildflower blowing in a meadow of millions. But within a larger context, the infinitesimal fits into a broader spectrum of colors and textures, of time and space.
There is a bizarre comfort in feeling insignificant in these environments. To see yourself woven into the textures of the sand and the tumbleweeds. To observe yourself as one little fleck of color in a swaying, pulsing world. For even if you are dwarfed in this context, you are a part of it. You are intrinsic.
This is why I paint, and this is what I paint. I capture this essence. I create an endless grid—a grid unbounded by the four straight lines of my canvas. Just as in the deserts of New Mexico, my canvases hold a uniformity of color that is also full of movement and variety. The painting’s subtle shifts in hue and shade and brightness suggest movement and time and distance. The grid carries its momentum outward and beyond. It spills out into the world. Like the sagebrush. Like the clouds. Like the waves.
Here, in New York, the night is punctuated by the rumbling of the subway and the crying out of sirens. Here, I am confronted with edifices in place of visas. Here, emotions spike. Here, I cannot escape the voices. The unsolicited critiques of my thoughts. The one specific voice that tells me what I can and cannot do. Voices have driven me to doctors, and they will drive me from this place. Back to places where I can let them out into the night air. In my apartment, in the canyons of this city, they only reverberate and intensify my isolation.
So I will go back where I am free and comfortable. I will nestle in among the tawny land and the silver-green sagebrush and the sky in its ever-changing shades of blue and orange. I will remember what I am.
There, I will once again experience fleeting moments of perfection. “At such times we are suddenly very happy and we wonder why life ever seemed troublesome. In an instant we can see the road ahead free from all difficulties, and we think that we will never lose it again. All this and a great deal more in barely a moment, and then it is gone.” And then it is gone. Except in my paintings. They bring it back.
Winged Victory of Samothrace, 220–185 BCE
I am hard stone pulled from the earth. For millennia I was pressed and squeezed and heated. My universe was dark and compact. I was limestone, and then as the earth roiled and shifted around me, year after year, millennium after century after epoch, I became what you now see. A “metamorphic rock,” a stunning object—change made static.
As I sat under the earth, gradually recrystallizing, working my way from ordinary to extraordinary, evolution—and later, civilization—roiled above me: shifting continents and volcanic eruptions helped my own evolution, just as humans evolved and animals went extinct in their world above.
I cooked deep inside the island that would eventually be called “Paros,” in the Aegean Sea. And then one day, after millions of years of nothing but pressure and darkness, I was hit with a violent crack and a blinding light. I was taken from the earth. I was no longer of the earth. I was surrounded by color and light. The world became weightless.
I was brought out of the rocky hillside. There was a cascade of green behind me and brilliant blue sky in front of me. The bright sunshine bounced off me and sparkled on the rolling waves of the sea that stretched out in front of me. Soon I was wrapped in ropes and touched by dozens of warm human hands before finally finding my way into the hands of my ultimate maker. The sculptor.
The sculptor did in a short period of time what millions of years in the earth never did. In the earth I transformed from one kind of rock into another, better kind of rock. But the sculptor . . . He made me human. Or human-like. Unessential parts of me were chiseled and scraped away. I broke free. I gained powerful legs and arms and broad, soft wings. I had a beautiful head with wind-lashed hair that tangled around my neck and shoulders. I have a torso that twists, with a soft, fleshy belly button and heavy breasts. I once had a mouth, a powerful mouth, and lips that shouted out in victory. My sculptor placed me on a boat that he sculpted at a sanctuary in Samothrace, and I called out in victory there for years.
My voice continued to carry across the windy cliffs, as my body, springy with the euphoria of victory, embraced the wind and the sea and the sun, my clothes an eternal spiral of excitement. Although I no longer look out from the sanctuary in Samothrace—no longer feel the breeze move across my supple skin—the spirit of that place is in me. Just as I am still in Samothrace. I am still shouting, still smiling, light of foot, wings stirring. I am just about to settle in to my ship at the sanctuary. I am still there. And it remains within me.
I once was hard stone pulled from the earth. But now I am human. I am so very, very real.
Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940
The heat has lifted, and a cool breeze is blowing in off the coast. There is a reprieve from the intensity of late summer. All day a steady stream of traffic barrelled south, back toward the city. To concrete, to offices and schools, to the rush of crowds and public transport. It’s as though the wind is trying to aid them on their way—to rush the season and get it over with. To bring the quiet of early autumn. The quiet of moored boats gently bobbing in the water. Of seagulls calling out with no children to respond. Of trees thinning in the arching light of shorter days.
There hasn’t been a car to my station in more then two hours now, and so I head out to inspect the pumps. To clean up the trash that’s been left behind. A sticky soda bottle, and a dirty newspaper that shouts, “NAZIS INTENSIFY AIR RAIDS ON BRITAIN AS 500 PLANES POUND AT STRONGHOLDS; BLITZKRIEG ON, LONDON PRESS WARNS.” I pause at this and shake my head. Nazis. Blitzkrieg. London. So very far away. I toss the newspaper in the trash and empty the can.
Across the way I hear a feral hiss in the pine trees. It sounds like a raccoon is attacking a squirrel’s nest. I can see the branches of a lone tree, the site of the violence, shaking, but then a gust of wind blows and the shaking blends in with the quivering of the rest of the forest.
Down the road, a flash of light suddenly illuminates the dark. A car rumbles around the corner, heading my way. I can see the silhouettes of a man and woman inside. The woman has voluminous, flouncing curls. The driver wears a hat, its brim obscuring his eyes. They turn into my station. My day is not quite over, just as the busy season is not quite over yet.
The breeze and the raccoons and the waning evening light will have to carry on without me for a little while longer.
Chi Rho Iota page, Book of Kells, 800
I am one of three who toils on this page. We are brothers in the scriptorium of Iona. Our abbey is on a windy and wet promontory. Isolated. An ideal place to contemplate our Heavenly Father, the Trinity, the Gospel.
This morning, after tending the kitchen fires, I came to the scriptorium as I do most days, and (as usual) it felt as if I had entered some special, secret world. The stone walls of our abbey are dark and slippery with wet, due to the pervasive mist that shrouds the world. And yet I felt as if I were inhaling the freshest, sunniest spring air! My mind was untroubled, as I turned my attention to the intricate decoration of this page, which tells of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is an expansive world hiding within the details on the page, and the text is waiting for me to create this secret world. A world of sunshine and opulence, populated by our creator’s most fantastical beings.
I feel more alive—more connected to God—as my fingers gently hold the calfskin in place. I have prepared my pigments, and as I allow them to glide over the calfskin, a beautiful alchemy takes place. The bright-yellow pigment is transformed into woven golden chains and precious metalwork. It becomes a dazzling puzzle whose solution leads its solver to spiritual enlightenment.
I am not the solver of that puzzle, of course. I am only God’s tool. Servus Dei. Still, though it is a sin, I sometimes think that I am special. That God has touched my hand and given me the plan to his vast maze that is our universe. I feel such a joy in this thought that the weight of my woolen robes and the hard wood of the bench on which I sit—indeed everything solid and earthly—evaporates. There is no cold or damp. No hunger. No fear of the barbarians. Each day, as I turn to my work, time slips away. I enter a new place that I cannot even access through the most fervent prayer.
But after a while, my brother clears his throat, interrupting me from my reverie. My time is up, and I leave the scriptorium, returning to the reality of my body. I am once again aware of the damp moss on the stone walls, the gray everywhere, the cold in my fingers and toes. But tomorrow awaits. And I will sin again, thinking myself special. Thinking myself to be the holder of the keys. Alchemist. Chosen by God.
Vasily Perov, The Last Tavern at the City Gates, 1868
It’s freezing and the darkness is creeping closer. Even Sashenka, ever patient and trusting, seems to have grown worried. He is beginning to shiver under his shaggy gray fur. He lets out an almost imperceptible whimper, looking anxiously toward the tavern door.
My parents are inside, collecting a debt from our neighbor. It is a debt we must collect before we begin our journey. It is all we have left in the world.
“Wait here, Elena,” they said. “We won’t be long.”
But it has been long, hasn’t it? Twenty minutes? Forty? An hour? My fingers have become numb, so I breathe hot air onto my mittens. But the condensation makes them wet, only making my fingers colder. I cannot feel my toes.
The snow stopped several hours ago, and the wind has died down, so an eerie silence blankets the street. The slightest sounds ricochet off the building facades. The sound of my shallow breathing and the rustling of my clothes as I fidget seem amplified. I feel exposed, on view in this corridor of shops and taverns.
Suddenly, there is the distinct crunch of boots on snow. A boy from my school is crossing the road, and he tucks his head down into his coat, bracing himself against a sudden gust of icy wind. He does not see me.
The horses are growing anxious now too. They paw at the ground, stomping, snorting, shaking their heads. They look up from time to time, glancing out of the corners of their eyes. Frost clings to their lashes.
From inside the tavern I hear a shout. Or is it laughter? There are clanging sounds. A lamp flickers. Several minutes of silence follow, and then the door flies open. My parents walk out, their faces revealing nothing. The silence of the snow on the street erupts into a chatter of crunches and squeaks as they walk toward our horses.
My mother nods at me. Solemn. Sashenka settles in on my lap, and the horses pull away. We move through the city gates out into the orange-gray twilight. There is nothing but darkness ahead, and we are pursued by the menacing cold. We will arrive at our destination after dark, frozen and exhausted. But we will have made it. Our beds will be soft as clouds and warm as an oven. We will have made it.