The Background of Transparency and Some Insights into Reflection
“Meaning is in the play or interplay of light. As in schizophrenia, all things lose their boundaries, become iridescent with many colored significances. In things, but an iridescence, a rainbow effect. An farbigen Abglanz haben wir das Leben. An indirect reflection; or refraction; broken light, or enigma."
(Norman 0. Brown Love's Body_ p. 246)
In Venice, California, where the edge of the Pacific Ocean is met by a street with the most apt name, Horizon St., there stands a curious and curiously symbolic structure. Several Los Angeles artists, such as Larry Bell and DeWain Valentine, have studios on Horizon St.; they with the other artists in the area, like John McCracken, Tony Berlant or Billy Al Bengston, all know and admire the structure--and I am guessing a little bit here--because it embodies in a disarming way some of that basic spirit of transformation common to shaman and charlatan, magician and mountebank. In short, it manifests something essential about the nature of art itself. Visitors to the beach in their almost naked naiveté can be seen taking snapshots with the tower for a background. It is painted white and red and is tall enough to be seen clearly from the San Diego freeway to the east, and to be used as a handy landmark by small boats at sea to the west. It looks like a lighthouse. But there is no light.
There is no light because it is not a lighthouse, but an oil derrick. We may argue the different appeal no our esthetic sensibilities of the two different structures, but that is really beside the point. It is in the act of camouflage that the oil company, or perhaps the property owners' association, or the City itself--whoever was responsible for the decision to put that romantic lighthouse coating on the oil derrick revealed themselves as true, if unconscious artists.
The problem here is whether a catalogue introduction should be more like lighthouse or an oil derrick. The lighthouse is on solid ground; the point is that it is too solid, too solid, that is, for the hulls of ships whether the warning light is along the coast or on a wave-swept reef. The point of an oil derrick is to bore into the earth; it exists not because of the earth’s presence, but because of what it conceals. Hence lighthouse structures are intended to be permanent, constant, dependable--not only serving to warn, but often thereby becoming navigational points of reference as well. As for oil wells, the sooner the hole can be drilled, capped, and the superstructure of the derrick removed, the better. One is solid and emanates light, the other is transitory, probing, showing its structure openly, with a lot of open space in between. So if all goes well maybe we can penetrate some of the topical ground of transparency and reflection in the light of this metaphor--or should we say, metaphare.
The word "metaphor" comes English through French metaphore meaning "a metaphor" according to Cotgrave's Dictionary, ed. 1660), Latin (metaphora), from the Greek, meaning "to transfer" and derived from meta signifying "change" and "to bear," the Reverend Walter W. Skeat reveals. (A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, New York, Harper & Bothers, 1882).
Now, phare is the French word for "lighthouse," deriving from the Latin pharus, and in turn from the Greek-—which was not the word for lighthouse, but the name of the island near the ancient city of Alexandria. (Albert Dauzat, Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue française, Paris, Larousse, 1938). "Pharos" became the general term for all lighthouses as the structure at Alexandria, built by Sostratus of Cnidus in the reign of Ptolemy II, and was regarded as one of the wonders Of the ancient world. (All of this is in the Encyclopaedia Britannica-plus more, which I intend to weave deftly into the following text). Hence my neologism "metaphare" might be understood as "changing the lighthouse," or something of the sort. We shall see presently just what this may or may not have to do with art. Webster defines "neologism" as "A new word, usage, or expression; the use of a new word or of an old word in a new or different sense." (In the Thin Paper Webster's New CollegiateDictionary, Springfield, Mass, G. & C. Merriam, 1959, we May find such a definition, the last part of which--following "or"--sounds pretty disturbingly similar to what Reverend Walter had to offer for "metaphor," namely: "a transferring of a word from its literal signification.")
Scholarly writing is that in which the author explains his own jokes, tells you where he heard each one of them, and if he can, who told them first. It is generally, as Marcel Duchamp once remarked about a certain public insult, "perhaps insufficiently lighthearted." So we won't go back to the above paragraph to dwell upon the insinuations of words like "well," "penetrate," "topical," "ground," "exhibition " and "light"--much less the key word "is," No one yet has given me enough rope to hang myself; nevertheless, .I would here like to invite the reader to help me mount the scaffold. (But you will have to start by looking up "derrick." I can't pose you all the problems, much less provide you with answers.)
Right about this point we have probably lost most of the children. Now we can, as Shirley Ellis would say, get right down to the real Nitty Gritty. In serious writing that usually means quoting from someone else. The point I want to borrow is what one of the greatest of modern philosophers has to say about language. But the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein presents renowned difficulties. Instead, I propose to quote from what George Steiner has to say about Wittgenstein and about the issue as it is formulated already in the seventeenth century, "with Descartes' implicit identification of truth and mathematical proof, and, above all, with Spinoza." To paraphrase Steiner, in the Ethics Spinoza, with superb naiveté, attempted to make the language of philosophy into a verbal mathematics, but succeeded in only creating an elaborate tautology.
"Unlike numbers, words do not contain within themselves functional operations. Added or divided, they give only other words or approximations of their own meaning. Spinoza's demonstrations merely affirm; they cannot give proof. Yet the attempt was prophetic. It confronts all subsequent metaphysics with a dilemma; after Spinoza, philosophers know that they are using language to clarify language, like cutters using diamonds to shape other diamonds. Language is seen no longer as a road to demonstrable truth, but as a spiral or gallery of mirrors bringing the intellect back to its point of departure. With Spinoza, metaphysics loses its innocence." (George Steiner, "The Retreat From the Word," Language and Silence: Essayson Language, Literature, and the Inhuman, New York, Atheneum, 1967).
But this problem of language affects more than metaphysics. It also affects esthetics; indeed it affects the whole of philosophy and more: all of the humanities and that part of our culture based or contingent upon language. Certainly this would embrace poets as well as pornographers, whichever of these sub-categories might be thought of as most apt for those historians and critics who write about the arts. In this most contemporary crisis of language no man can claim both literacy and innocence. Every typewriter spins out a spiral of intellectual reflections. We are all in a gallery of mirrors.
Could it be that we find ourselves back inside the metaphorical lighthouse? After winding our way up the spiral stairs out of wave-swept isolation, we find ourselves finally in a room which, however lucid, is circular. And if we are to look into the light, it is precisely the reflecting mirrors that make it so blinding bright. In such circumstances perhaps we can be forgiven even our attempts to generate wit. Steiner and Wittgenstein also find themselves on the same kind of rock, surrounded by what can guess (but only guess) is the same night and the same sea. And they too, like all men of hope, madness or humanity, have built their towers. It cannot be known with certainty which of these works were genuinely intended to serve as guideposts or as warning beacons, lest other farers of that sea founder upon the rocks at its base...or again, whether the edifice was not meant to be merely a loftier base from which its builder might thereby gain a wider view of the horizon, the more surely to control his demesne.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, again, tells us that "A watchhouse and beacon appear to have been erected on Beacon or Lighthouse Island as well as on Point Allerton Hill near Boston, prior to 1673, but these structures would seem to have been in the nature of look-out stations in time of war rather than lighthouses for the guidance of mariners." Two if by sea only if you were a friend. In case you were an enemy and they saw you coming, maybe they blew out the light.
Anyway, Steiner says, "The greatest of modern philosophers was also the one most profoundly intent on escaping from the spiral of language. Wittgenstein's entire work starts out by asking whether there is any verifiable relation between the word and the fact. That which we call fact may well be a veil spun by language to shroud the mind from reality. Wittgenstein compels us to wonder whether reality can be spoken of when speech is merely a kind of infinite regression, words being spoken of other words. Wittgenstein pursued this dilemma with passionate austerity. The famous closing proposition of the Tractatus is not a claim for the potentiality of philosophic statement such as Descartes advanced. On the contrary; it is a drastic retreat from the confident authority of traditional metaphysics."
This conclusion led Wittgenstein to class most of what we would call philosophy as "mystical," i.e., inexpressible. "Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence." Yet,this silence, Steiner adds, "which at every point surrounds the naked discourse, seems, by virtue of Wittgenstein's force of insight, less a wall than a window. With Wittgenstein, as with certain poets, we look out of language not into darkness but light. Anyone who reads the Tractatus will be sensible of its odd, mute radiance."
Since the seventeenth century then the world of words has been forced to beat a retreat from a former position that claimed identity with the world. New worlds have emerged or become more autonomous, with subjects that can only be "spoken" about meaningfully in terms of corresponding new languages. The clearest example of this process is the world of science and its language of mathematics. I would also consider the worlds of art and music with their respective languages of visual image and of sound as having developed, despite the Renaissance, largely outside the province of language in its customary sense. However proximate and parallel these developments may have been earlier, in any case their separateness becomes profoundly obvious in the early twentieth century, particularly with the creation of abstract art and atonal music. Over a century earlier Kant had clearly recognized the necessity for a separate language for esthetic realities (in Das Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1793). The case for music is as venerable and recurrent as the tradition of the music of the speres; in fact, music shares with mathematics a common ancestor in the thought of Pythagoras. Parochial spirits in each of these several worlds have behaved at various times like xenophobes, or worse like imperialists--both of which attitudes have posed difficulties for the humanist and translator as grave as they are unnecessary.
And yet translation is necessary between and among all the languages of our civilization, just as culture must now be global and history must include all time. Communication between the worlds of art, music, letters and science through carefully and passionately wrought translations in their various languages are now perhaps even more necessary than Schilling's Hamlet is for Germans, or for us Fitzgerald's Rubivat. And so long as such a process of communication is actively sustained, it makes little significant difference if the translations are at first tentative and fail to convey the full elegance of their inspiration. It doesn't even matter very much whether or not they are correct. In the history of humanity's grappling with fine and infinite causes, errors have been frequently quite as productive as accuracies, and certainly the source of far greater amusement. Without suggesting that error become for ourselves some sort of perverse ideal, nevertheless it is worth observing that either error or the appearance of error is pronounced in the paradoxically rich (and very human) histories of nihilism, Satanism, Sadism, anarchy, Dada, Provo--or, for that matter, the French and American Revolutions, Luther at Wittenberg, Savanarola in Florence, Galileo in Rome or Jesus Christ in the court of Pilate.
Physicists winced, of course, when the litterateurs swooped in to pluck the very beautiful word "indeterminacy" from its jungly nest in quantum mechanics, leaving behind them droppings of fancifully gross misapplications. And the scientists howled anew when artists compounded the misappropriation, freshly depositing the wrenched spoor of visual malentendus. But whether it is beset by ignorance, indignation or indifference, our total culture is the poorer without exploration of what "indeterminacy" might mean in, say, the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Luigi Nono as well as what special and different significance might obtain in the context of Werner Heisenberg's experiments with radiation from black bodies. Research at the Rooster's Tail, the California Club or the 54 Ballroom might have produced results far different from those presented at Copenhagen back in 1925, but of no less validity and immediate relevance. I mean to suggest that there is no more intrinsic virtue in studying atomic physics in Europe than Black culture in America. Either way most of us remain in a gallery of mirrors. The better part of our honest education is devoted to learning to recognize our own reflection. The worst part, which is indoctrination, changes the fun house into a cattle chute.
There are indeed heroes in the life of dreams and ideas. And the greatest of them often seem to be those intent upon transforming the lighthouse into the oil well. That is, they reveal themselves as perhaps malcontents; magicians, as being consummately alive, and as artists in a true and real sense, Heisenberg is among them, and Wittgenstein, and Duchamp. So are the musicians: Morton Feldman has written probably the most beautiful music of the twentieth century, while that of Cage and Nono is among the most intelligent. But in this field the list of artist/heroes might also have to include the Beatles, Anton Webern, La Monte Young and B.B. King.
If ever there is written a true but superficially apocryphal history of Modern Times, Werner Heisenberg might receive credit for the lines, "I'm looking through you/ You're not the same." John Lennon, Nobel Laureate, might receive accolades in his turn for a Unified Field theory ("All you need is love"). For among the far-reaching philosophical implications of the theory of quantum mechanics as developed by Heisenberg and Neils Bohr is the notion of an ontological indeterminacy--that is, a principle of indeterminacy which operates on the level of what we can say about the nature of the world. Even though Einstein, in his well-known remark, shrunk from accepting the conclusion, apparently God does play dice. Added to which we must again confront the indeterminacy principle on the epistemological level--when we say something about not the world itself but what we know about the world. Very precise measurements (such as those involving either the position or the momentum of an electron) necessarily disturb that which is being measured. So however well-adapted we may be to our gross approximations of measure as they apply to our practical lives, when it gets right down to it there is no such thing as a purely "objective" world. As Heisenberg might have said to the atom,"I'm looking at you, therefore you're not the same."
Similarly, mathematicians began to recognize their own faces in their own ball of mirrors--especially with the publication of Kurt Gödel's famous paper in 1931. I am not sure whether or not there are any direct points of correspondence between developments in the disciplines of physics and mathematics and what has happened in philosophy and letters, or in music and the other arts. But even the most amateurish scrutiny of these various fields soon begins to discover certain patterns that become familiar at least in general configuration. As the good Bishop Berkeley had led us to believe long before, the critical elements in any definition of reality are the phenomenology of perception and the quality of human involvement. What had passed as objective reality, pure and absolute--whether Newtonian mechanics or any system of mathematics at least as complex as arithmetic-- we have come to recognize as closed and fundamentally arbitrary, if practical, systems. The implications of this are immense. They are especially pertinent to those creative mentalities in the arts and humanities who have been made to feel in some apologetic, defensive position vis-à-vis the sciences. And when these implications begin to be strongly felt and more clearly articulated than they are here, we shall no doubt find them triggering several revolutions.
Art has a love affair going with Science now, just as it did with Literature in the Renaissance. And in both instances is the adventuress, the plotter among partners, coveting and securing new respectability from the liaison. The tradition of Ut pictura poesisis is the diary of the former affair. Quite possibly the Experiments in Art and Technology are a bundle of love letters documenting the current romance. So far the whole scene looks pretty tacky. It is like the cheerleader and the football hero. Will Art realize someday soon the true meaning and relevance of Science? And will Science succeed like Rex Harrison in teaching his little Liza just exactly where it's really at? Can anyone ever really care about what happens in Mary Worth? For that is the level of most contemporary artistic fascination with science. If great works are to be produced as a result of the marriage of these two worlds, it is a good bet that scientists will produce them--ordinary scientists, or else very great artists.
Perhaps the clearest lessons in all this are for the esthetician, the teacher, the critic or writer on art. In this curious field, which invades the territory of both art and letters or philosophy, the transfer of patterns from the sciences makes at least provisional sense. For one thing, we may recognize the contributions of most traditional writing about art, and especially that mainstream of esthetics concerned with defining Beauty, while finally freeing ourselves from the false fundamental assumptions that such an inquiry may correspond to any kind of objective reality. Esthetics can then become the more wholesome and honest, if less ambitious, activity of investigating what we can know about one special class of relationships with the world (or better, with that part of our separate worlds which happens to overlap). This new starting point admits that the world bears no necessary relationship to the several esthetic worlds of each individual. Further, that anything can be the agent or catalyst of an esthetic experience. Well, there go all those comfortable, superior definitions of what Art is and how we can best go about appreciating it. Or creating it, for that matter.
For over half a century now we have had double evidence (in both a work of art and in the explanation of that work by the artist) for the crucial function of choice in defining the creative act. Although principles of "ready made" art had been manifested by Marcel Duchamp's art since the "Roue de bicyclette" of 1913 (a bicycle wheel placed upside down through the seat of a kitchen stool), the most notorious example of his radical esthetic was "Fontaine" (1917). This piece of sculpture was a porcelaine urinal turned upside down and signed "R. Mutt." Duchamp and the painter Joseph Stella paid the six dollar entry fee and sent it in to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, of which Duchamp was himself a founding member. But the organization refused to show the work, even though it was pledged to do so for any artist who paid the fee. The artist's counter to this rejection was published in a transitory magazine called The Blind Man: "Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object."
In his ready-mades Duchamp forces the extension of art so that it becomes congruent with the face of reality's appearance and the assumption of its substance. But his last great formal artistic production, which occupied him from 1913 to 1923 when he left it definitively unfinished, was the"Large Glass"(actually painted on two sections of glass) also titled "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even." This was also the title of a collection of ninety-four documents pertaining to the ten years of working on the "Large Glass" published by Duchamp in 1934. Following this event, also known as the appearance of the "Green Box" (the assembled notes were presented in a green box), there remained the problem of deciphering what the notes meant by way of approaching the meaning of the "Large Glass" itself, perhaps the last masterpiece and certainly one of the greatest creations of this century--and, specifically, the crucial work of art in the history (if such existed) of transparency and reflection.
One of the most successful attempts at penetrating the mysteries of Duchamp's reflection as manifested by the "Large Glass" and as documented by the notes, was an essay by the French Surrealist, Andre Breton. This appeared in the same month (October, 1934), in the periodical Minotaure, and was titled, "Le Phare de la Merit" ("The Lighthouse of the Bride").
We needn't embark upon a detailed analysis of either the work or the notes, nor indeed of the essay that analyzes them. Anyway, as Duchamp himself told Walter Hopps in 1963, on the occasion of the first major retrospective exhibition of Marcel Duchamp's work, "It was too long, and in the end you lose interest, so I didn't feel the necessity to finish it." Or, as he once remarked to George Heard Hamilton, "There is no solution because there is no problem." (Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art, New York, The Viking Press, 1965). But problems are also works of art, subject to the same range of esthetic judgement. Following Duchamp himself, we might say they are where you find/create them.
As Andre Breton regarded the "Large Glass" ("The Bride," or in the full original, "La mariee mis a nu par ses celibataires meme" and "Le 'Grand Verre'"), "In this work it is impossible not to see at least the trophy of a fabulous hunt through virgin territory, at the frontiers of eroticism, of philosophical speculation, of the spirit of sporting competition, of the most recent data of science, of lyricism and of humor." And at the conclusion of his essay, "It is wonderful to see how intact it manages to keep its power of anticipation. And one should keep it luminously erect, to guide future ships on a civilization which is ending."
Whether or not one is initiated into the intricacies of the "Large Glass," or can follow its various visual and intellectual gambits, there is something about confronting it in the immediacy and usual unpreparedness of an esthetic event that is here relevant to our purpose.
The two large glass slabs in their metal frame are part of the Arensberg Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One can, of course, see through the work of art; that is, except where the artist has made it opaque. And through the work of art we perceive "reality"? This may be why Duchamp, in one of the notes in the "Green Box" calls the work "un retard en verre (a "glass delay") "a delay in all the general sense that is possible, a glass delay as one says a prose poem or a silver cuspidor." It is also implicitly kinetic, for while the frame does not move physically, the world does that we see behind, or through, the work, and which is framed by it.
Thomas Mann begins one chapter of The Magic Mountain, titled "By the Ocean of Time," with a pertinent question. "Can one tell--that is to say, narrate--time, time itself, as such, for its own sake?" This we discover is a rhetorical ploy, for he instantly answers, "That would surely be an absurd undertaking. A story which read: 'Time passed, it ran on, the time flowed onward' and so forth--no one in his senses could consider that a narrative. It would be as though one held a single note or chord for a whole hour, and called it music." Leaving aside, for a moment, what may be Mann's Germanic criteria for new music, some comforting examples spring to mind. What about a book whose narrative begins, almost in Mann's own words, "riverrun..."? In a sense the author of The Magic Mountain may still have a point, for the beginning of Finnegans Wake is also the Fall of Mann as much as it is that of the hod-carrier Tim Finnegan. In much the same way, La Monte Young's songs accompanied by sine wave generators might transcend the realm of music whose outer limits of imprisonment are Beethoven's late quartets. "Thus," Mann continues toward an important elaboration, "music and narration are alike, in that they can only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another; and both differ from the plastic arts, which are complete in the present, and unrelated to time save as all bodies are...." Here, obviously, the example of the "Large Glass" must intrude. Duchamp's work may indeed represent the first major attempt to articulate the quality of time with such penetrating logic and pellucid success. It can be seen as an exquisitely refined statement already contained in the ready-mades, in which the fundamental creative act was understood as the designation of any object (or event?) as a work of art, i.e. its choice or selection and its presentation in an "art" context, which might be achieved by it being shown in a gallery or museum, by being framed or mounted, or merely by its being signed by the "artist." (Particularly within the last decade this last gesture, the signing of the work, has been serious challenged by artists--esthetically, and by extension philosophically, in the work of the so-called Pop artists; more literally in the work of the so-called Minimalists, which seldom if ever bear the mark of the artist's signature, that romantically individualist assertion, sentimentally perpetuated from a literary and private property-oriented culture.) In the "Large Glass" Duchamp articulates time by his very choice of materials--by the transparent glass through which we can see the world pass and change and run like a river, even as we contemplate his work of art, looking at it, or past it, or through it. It is only when we are "delayed" inside it that we do not really perceive the world change, and the only thing that changes is ourselves. Thus only when it succeeds most fully in Duchamp's sense of "delaying" us does it fail in the sense Thomas Mann seems to require--for only then is it "unrelated to time save as all bodies are."
During the ten years in which he worked on the "Large Glass," Marcel Duchamp also importantly incorporated principles of transparency and reflection in other works. One of these was a construction of glass, lead, oil, rusted metal, magnifying glass and "silver scratching" titled "A regarder d'un oeil, de pres, pendent presque une heure" ("To Be Looked At With One Eye, Close To, For Almost An Hour"), which he created in Buenos Aires in 1918. In "Apolinere Enameled" (1916-17), which the artist referred to as a "corrected ready-made," (originally an advertisement for Sapolin Enamel on a zinc plate, which Duchamp amended and signed) he also added a reflection of the little girl's hair in the mirror to the right of the bed--a detail which, Calvin Tomkins relates, has pleased him that hardly anyone has ever noticed. But in the other piece, "A regarder..." Duchamp actually incorporates the materials of mirroring. The "silver scratching" is a design in mercury applied to the back of the glass. Mirrors frequently appear as subject matter in painting before the twentieth century. We need only recall briefly, but with delight, Velazquez' "Rokeby Venus," or Boucher's famous boudoir scene of the French king's favorite, one of the Kelly girls, or the beautiful bulls-eye mirror in the background of Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Wedding." Mirrors themselves, of course, were objects of sometimes great beauty and extraordinary craftsmanship as far back as Greek, Etruscan and Roman times, and they are represented on the backs of many sculptured stones from Scotland from the seventh, eighth or ninth centuries. The greatest painting in which a mirror forms part of the subject matter is "Las Meninas" by Velazquez, who was altogether fascinated by subtle problems of the perception of light in his latter paintings. The picture represents the scene at court as seen through the eyes of the King and Queen of Spain, who are themselves (ourselves) reflected in a mirror in the background of the painting. Capitalizing upon the illusionism or Velazquez, his painting is installed in a separate room at the Prado, placed opposite a large mirror. This suggest a final point for this quick sketch of the topic, which is to acknowledge a curious group of works intended to be seen by looking into a mirror. Most famous among these is the large painting by Hans Holbein in the London National Gallery which goes by the title "The Ambassadors," and specifically that strange image of a skull, anamorphically distorted, that floats tilted over the inlaid floor at the bottom of the work. Jurgis Baltrusaitis has shown that this and similar such images (e.g. the portrait of Edward VI in the same gallery) can be "corrected" by being perceived through different kinds of mirrors, cylindrical and the like.
The ways in which concepts of transparency and reflection have been manifested in architecture perhaps most solidly establish both the antiquity and consistent or recurrent nature of these concerns. A thoroughgoing history would have to ponder the invention of the window and the door--when these were invented, so as to articulate interior and exterior space, instead of being just a rock rolled up against the mouth of the cave. The origins of such a chronicle remain vague forever, but there are some later details and subtleties which stand as evidence of our desire to incorporate light into structure. The tradition of stained glass for centuries remains at the center of such a history. The late, great humanist scholar, Paul Frankl documents the role of stained glass during the Gothic period, and traces its relation to sources in the mystical metaphysics of light propounded by the Neoplatonists of the third and fourth centuries. (Paul Frankl, The Gothic: Eight Centuries of Literary Sources and Interpretations, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1960.) And there is also an important heritage of the Gothic stained glass window, seen in the work of early twentieth century artists--most clearly and forcefully in the painting of Georges Rouault.
A more purely architectural concern might be the interplay of exterior and interior space particularly as developed by twentieth century architects like Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe--and certain forerunners in the nineteenth century such as Auguste Ferret or Joseph Paxton in the Crystal Palace of 1851. For example, one of the key design innovations--in contrast to the use of just more and more glass--is the development of the corner window: exactly where we most expect to see the architectural solidity of a structure expressed, there it becomes transparent. Frank Lloyd Wright is given credit for initiating this statement by many architectural historians, but there are some interesting prototypes. One example can be found in the impressive ruins at Chaco Canyon in north-western New Mexico, dating from about a thousand years ago. In any case, the interpenetration of spaces becomes one of the primary expressive concerns of the architecture of our time. It was epitomized perhaps most elegantly in the Barcelona Pavilion of 1929 by Mies van der Rohe. Now it can be sensed in almost any suburban home.
Returning to the problem of transparency and reflection in painting and sculpture, let us read what Leonardo da Vinci had to say. The text is from Leonardo's answer to one of the first public opinion polls ever conducted. Benedetto Varchi solicited all the best known painters and sculptors of mid-sixteenth century Italy for their opinions as to which was the superior medium for artistic expression. In his reply Leonardo presented an amusing, but presumably serious apologia for the art of painting--partly by way of putting down the principle Medium of Michelangelo and other respondents. Sculptors, Leonardo maintained, "can neither represent transparent bodies nor luminous bodies nor angles of reflection nor shining bodies such as mirrors and like things of glittering surface." (The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Edward MacCurdy, London, 1938).
But as Sir Herbert Read correctly notes in his handsome Bollingen Series book, The Art of Sculpture, "Transparent or translucent sculpture is not unknown in the past; there are the famous skulls of rock crystal from Mexico, not to mention various rock crystal carvings of the late classic, Gothic and Islamic periods. There is also a whole class of miniature sculptures of molded and drawn glass made at Murano and Limoges in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; however, the recent invention of various types of translucent and transparent plastic materials that have the advantage of being easily cut or bent has given the sculptor a new opportunity to exploit light." Of course there was the use of mirrors and reflective or transparent surfaces in the art of the Orient, and also in the arts of various primitive cultures. A special category of "sculpture" in the tradition of Western European art, of which Sir Herbert however omits mention in this context, are religious reliquaries. The finest craftsmen and artists were frequently called upon to create relequaries to contain the bones or other remains of some saint, or other holy object, and to somehow present it to the faithful for veneration. The use of glass or other transparent material was thus part of the function of such a project, protecting the sacred object while at the same time making it visible. Thus such works occupy an important place in the history of artists exploring the formal problems of articulating interior volumes, or dealing with the expression and effects of transparency.
In the twentieth century there was great impetus given to the expression in art of transparency by the development of materials themselves, as seen in the work of the Constructivists (such as Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner) and others. Another influence, this time important for the German Expressionists, came from the use of glass in some Russian folk painting. But neither of these phenomena really explain why the ideas of penetration, transparency or depth involvement have become recurrent themes and concerns for contemporary art. It is doubtful that there is any single explanation, of course, but perhaps in our study of several apparently disparate events and expressions we can begin to discover new relationships, which in turn may point the way toward a deeper and more relevant understanding of both the world and ourselves. It is very stimulating, for instance, to read Marshall Mc Luhan's juxtapositions of depth psychology, see-through blouses, wide-mesh stockings and the cool involvement of comic books, TV and electronic circuitry. It may not be at all trivial or fanciful to suggest that we consider in the same loose matrix examples from the history of contemporary painting, such as Lucio Fontana's slashes through the surface of the canvas, or unconventionally shaped canvases that enclose space (as in some works by Prank Stella, Iain Baxter and J. Michael Egan). Again, in the context of reflection, the binary forms, or modes of presentation, in some pieces by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns or Robert Indiana may bear some intriguing fundamental relationship to systems of binary logic upon which many computers are based.
It may be argued that these relationships are apparent only. But as Oscar Wilde said, "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances."