Heidegger coined the term Dasein to describe our state of being in time. This state of presence, “being there/here”, reflects both the conscious awareness of the perceiver, and the quality of what is perceived in the same moment. Arthur Danto, in his book, The Abuse of Beauty, writes, “The world as an aesthetic presence is inseparable from what we are.” 1 In referring to Abstract Expressionism, and Barnett Newman in particular, Danto further argues that Newman wants “to instill wonder and awe at ourselves as here.” 2Art enables us to connect to the world in this way. Nature, and culture, and the world as we know it, are a spatial/temporal construct, to which we bring conscious awareness. With that self-awareness comes ineffability, a sense of something greater than ourselves.
A recent trip to New York City to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the New Museum highlighted two artists’ work that deal with the idea of the ineffable in different ways. They share, however, common qualities of Dasein in experiencing the landscape and spatial indeterminacies. Both artists embrace as well a sense of vulnerability, awe and wonderment. Both allude to the Sublime in a spatial way in terms of scale and ineffability.
Artists of the 19th century Hudson River School, heavily influenced by English and European landscape painters like Constable, Turner, and Ruskin, and Courbet, sought inspiration in the wildness of the Hudson River, the American West, and in the European Alps. Albert Bierstadt, a latecomer to this society of painters, painted “Sunrise on the Matterhorn” sometime after 1875. He was considered a Luminist painter, and his unique contribution in this painting lies in his divergence from the historical narrative of the landscape painting of that era; he concentrates instead on the unique quality of space, color, and form. In Bierstadt’s work, the drama is played out in front of us, showing the forces of nature with magnificence that is both beautiful and full of awesome power.
In “Sunrise on the Matterhorn”, unlike some of the enormous canvases by Frederick Church of Niagara Falls and the Andes, Bierstadt conveys a sense of monumentality on only a 58 ½ x 48 5/8” canvas. We are struck with the verticality of the piece, enhanced by tall pine trees holding tenuously to the side of the mountain rocks. We seem to stand above the scene, perhaps on a high ridge, looking down and across a vast panorama of valleys and smaller ridges, partly obscured by clouds and fog. Far beyond is the huge mountain of the Matterhorn, bathed in an orange-glowing light of a new morning. The scene is breathtaking. With closer inspection we see in the foreground a waterfall flowing from the left of the canvas, down to a more central spot, where it catches morning light before it plummets over a precipice. A small village down below in the valley, along the shores of the flowing river, shows evidence of human activity, a miniature scene distinct from but integral to the larger drama of nature’s vastness. By the inclusion of this village in the composition, Bierstadt shows the context in which humanity plays in these contrasting elements of size and power.
What is also striking in this picturesque moment is the depth of space and luminescent color. We are invited to experience this fixed moment in a dramatic play of light, shadow, movement, and expansiveness. The sublimity of this experience is marked by the depiction of extreme heights that frame the interstitial space between the precipice and the vertical trajectory of the Matterhorn, which anchors the whole scene. The movement is expansive in all directions, both out and up, horizontal and vertical. The extreme verticality induces a feeling of vertigo and makes us feel the vulnerability of our position.
The sharp contrast of dark passages in the foreground and the distant lit mountain along with the out-and-up expansiveness provide a spatial repose, an interstitial interlude in the middle ground of the composition. This feels much like the “zips” in Barnett Newman’s minimalist paintings, referencing the ineffable. Bierstadt’s repose is indeterminate and suggests multiple readings: the solitariness of the experience; the sense of boundlessness. The beauty in this scene thus goes hand in hand with our experience of indeterminacy. The repose enables us to respond with both awe and vulnerability. The sense of our own temporality and the eternal are simultaneously present in the experience, the sense of being there/here--Dasein. This is truly a remarkable accomplishment!
From a postmodern perspective, Bierstadt’s ability to capture the Sublime points to a further notion of the space/time continuum. The role of the artist in the experience of the Sublime is critical. He is a kind of guide on this journey in the Alps, and he is sharing his experience with us, the viewers. Through art he creates a dialectic in which we are there with him in time and space, but at the same time we experience the timeless, the ineffable, and the indescribable through the immediacy of the moment, Dasein, both a singular and collective experience in this case.
Let us keep this analysis in mind as we look at another artist’s work. Contemporary Argentinian artist, Rita Ponce de Leon, currently showing two pieces at the New Museum in New York in the exhibit entitled, The Ungovernables, brings an interesting twist to the role of authorship, the space/time continuum, and the evocation of the Sublime. As a young South American woman artist, Ponce de Leon, references both traumatic human experiences and geographical/spatial panoramas, sometimes with social/political contexts, but in miniature.
In her piece entitled, I agree nothing is mine, Ponce de Leon creates images with an effect similar to that of Bierstadt’s large, dramatic painting but with sharply contrasting means. Instead of a single, large piece, we see an amalgam of fifty-nine miniature ink drawings, each on the scale of an inch, with numerous notations of mountains, skies, crowds of people, sunsets, and sunrises. Ponce de Leon transforms the viewpoints of many members of her family and friends into dream-like visions, which are both visceral and disjointed. In each small scene, and in the various spaces between them, we sense unclear interstitial gaps that suggest missing information or lost traces of experience. Through the medium of language and visual art, she creates a panorama of life experienced, a multitude of moments, in space and time. But there is a sense of fragmentation, an incomplete record that begs for more explanation. We are forced to look closely to find answers in the minute lines of drawing that describe a body, a cloud, a mountain, and implied cries of loss from death or persecution, fleetingly described. We must engage physically, literally, to become intimate with the drawings in order to understand their meaning as a whole. Our empathy becomes a spatial act.
Enclosed within a Plexiglas vitrine, the Ponce de Leon piece creates visual space in which the “voices” can be heard. It also points to a larger, deeper issue of memory, both individual and collective. While Bierstadt’s painting describes a fixed moment in time and space, experienced and remembered by the artist, framed within a unified composition from a his own single viewpoint, Ponce de Leon’s piece evokes collective memory, multiple historic experiences that cannot be so easily framed or contained. The experience of Ponce de Leon’s “worldscapes” is through the context of memory, relayed through the agency of a secondary witness. The situation is complex, twice removed, obfuscated, and results in snapshots of individual moments, like multiple “zips” simultaneously experienced. The empathetic response, moving closer to understand the intricate nature of these moments, brings us to ourselves. Here art achieves the sense of Dasein once again but by different means. And in this response, there is also a feeling of the ineffable, the indescribable, something greater than ourselves.
Visually, though, there is a surprising cohesiveness to this amalgam of viewpoints. The collection is greater than the sum of the parts. All voices are “heard” equally in time and space, and the visual transformation of those experiences has a colossal effect, much like Bierstadt’s Matterhorn. The personal becomes part of the macrocosmic universe.
Arthur Danto, in the final chapter in The Abuse of Beauty, quotes Barnett Newman: “One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting should give a man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself….Standing in front of my paintings you had a sense of your own scale. The onlooker in front of my painting knows that he’s there. To me, the sense of place not only has a mystery but has that sense of metaphysical fact.”3 Bierstadt and Ponce de Leon both understand this metaphysical fact, reminding us that our unique experiences in the world are temporal and spatial. Ultimately, though, by virtue of our act of awareness, through the agency of art, brings us to ourselves, and that itself is beautiful.
1. Danto, Arthur. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 2003. p.156. Print.
2. Danto, Arthur. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 2003. p.158. Print.
3. Danto, Arthur. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 2003. p. 158. Print.
Danto, Arthur. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 2003. Print.
Drolet, Michael. The Postmodern Reader Foundational Texts. New York, N.Y.: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 2004. pp. 230-237.Print.
Joo, Eungie,. The Ungovernables 2012 New Museum Trienniel. New York, N.Y.: Skira Rizzoli Publications, 2012. Print.
Monk, Samuel H. The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in Xviii-Century England. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1960. Print.
Nye, David E.,. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: MIT, 1994. Print.
Stephen, Copley,. The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape and Aesthetics Since 1770. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.Wilton, Andrew. American Sublime in the United States. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002. Print.