"Thoughts on Painting"

"Senseless Variations of Light on the Retinas"

"James McNeill Whistler used to walk down to the Atlantic shore carrying a few thin planks and his paints. On the planks he painted, day after day, in broad blurred washes representing sky, water, and shore, three blurry light-filled stripes. These are late Whistlers; I like them very much. In the high Arctic I thought of them, for I seemed to be standing in one of them. If I loosed my eyes from my shoes, the ground at my feet, or the chaos of ice at the shore, I saw what newborn babies must see: nothing but senseless variations of light on the retinas. The world was a color-field painting wrapped around me at an unknown distance; I hesitated to take a step." 

Annie Dillard, from "Teaching a Stone to Talk"

 James McNeill Whistler, Sea and Rain

James McNeill Whistler, Sea and Rain

 James McNeill Whistler, Bathing Posts

James McNeill Whistler, Bathing Posts

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 James McNeill Whistler, Seal Maiden

James McNeill Whistler, Seal Maiden

 James McNeill Whistler, Angry Sea

James McNeill Whistler, Angry Sea

I have often thought of this in painting - to be able to see the world again as newborn babies, trying to make sense of things before any naming, before the awareness of space or distance, or any idea of separateness.

In the first days and month of our lives, we exist in swirling beauty and wonder and curiosity and continual discovery.

What happens to that kind of primordial consciousness? It gets lost somewhere along the way in our need to understand and control our environment.

There is often something in the journey of the artist that eventually takes them full circle in their later years. You see them stripping everything down, letting go of manufactured precepts in order to get back to the prime essence of what we know to be real and true.

I don't have any more to say about that. I just find it deeply curious and moving whenever I see this kind of reduction in the late work of an artist.

Stacy CaldwellComment