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Brief essay of the month, September 2006

About Time
(from Studio Notes, Late August-Early September 2006)

In a cabin in the mountains and looking for things to read, I found Suzanne Langer's  Reflections on Art, a source book of writings by artists, critics and philosophers, Oxford 1972, with essays drawn from American, German, French and British periodicals, journals and museum catalogues, the oldest 1892, the newest 1957.  I found the prose to be mostly extremely complex elaborations of questions in art and aesthetics that I thought not worth asking even back then when they were asked. 

However, reading the prose for pleasure in a solitary mountain cabin was great—like hearing a late Romantic symphony as background music in the studio sets a mood of seriousness and aspiration, of passion, achievement and despair. Or, as I think Langer  herself said  in her Philosophy in a New Key when I read it fifty years ago when everyone was reading it, “Art is the form of emotion, the viewers (hearers, whatever) pour in their own content.”  So the essays as form of thought, the music as form of feeling, and both as background to three weeks painting in my personal hermitage in the Laurentian Mountains of Québec.  (My father had told me when I was a child that the Laurentians are the oldest landmass in the Western Hemisphere… the form to fill with a content you want to last a very long time.)

Among the essays Langer had collected was Etienne Souriau’s Time and The Plastic Arts (1949), and Micheline Sauvage’s Notes on The Superimposition of Temporal Modes in Works of Art (1953).

Souriau’s main theme was the moment represented in the work and the temporal and spatial implications of that moment's before and after.  Among his examples was Raphael’s Transfiguration, and among his criticisms were that the time illustrated in the top half (the Jesus part) was “of a slow and cyclic rhythm; the time of the lower parts is of dramatic shock encumbered in several places [with models] arrested in positions that are obviously studio poses taken without any fusion with an action which might prepare them and might prolong them and which, moreover, are contradictory if one should attempt to prolong them”—or, that the painting was a pastiche of times that confuse and block the viewer’s contemplation of time before, now and to come—the very point of Christ’s transfiguration itself. Souriau had a secondary theme, referred to by Sauvage as “the insertion point”—the moment the work enters the time of the viewer’s contemplation and from that moment enters the realm of Aion, the ancient time god that eats all things—the physical world of decay, ruin and death.

Sauvage’s “Notes on Superimposition…” sets out to go much further than Souriau—aestheticians too must one up each other to stay in the game—by developing four types of Time all piled on top of each other in the work of art itself. 

Sauvage begins:
“First is the temporal insertion of a work of art… The word temporal is in this case both clear and in conformity with present usage.  The work is in time, subject to time, with all that this involves in the way of history, of change and of adventures, for the physical work itself as well as for its "message" (if I may be allowed to use this detested facile word).”  This is Sauvage’s first mode of time (T1) in the plastic arts; it is the object of art as an object eaten by Aionlike my 1950’s-60’s collages.

Sauvage continues:
“Much richer in possibilities is the second level of artistic temporality: the fact that the work of art uses the time it takes the viewer to experience the work as one of its working elements.  This temporality, T2, if we may so call it, maybe less evident in the "spatial" arts [than in music where you have to sit through it]… But a canvas, a monument or a bas-relief, does nonetheless demand the time needed by the work to be revealed to the spectator, as he has to look again and again, to wait  the different hours of the day, to walk around the object, to draw closer to it or move further away from it, etc.”

“A third level… T3 consists of the temporal significations implied by the thing represented; or again to use a current term, T3… is time evoked T3 belongs entirely to  the representative aim . [T3, the time implied/described in the work, was Souriau’s primary concern. That was his problem with Raphael’s Transfiguration, and as Souriau went on to point out, with most of Raphael].

Sauvage concludes:
“Now I'll consider Poussin’s The Shepherds in Arcadia.... I find the three preceding levels, T1, 2, and 3.  Indeed, one cannot but be struck by the importance of T3, by the dilation and exceptional track of time put into the painting.  No artistic comprehension of the work is possible if one does not take account of the temporal basis implied by the ages of the various persons, the presence of the tomb recalling those who lived formerly in the same place and the inevitable deaths in the future. But is there really nothing else?... Have we not here also a Time represented that is over and above the time of what is represented in the painting itself?  In short, we have a time of level T4.  That is, a painting that was made in time by an artist who lived in time, the image in the painting representing a moment of time, but it may also be that the painting deals with time itself—T4.[3]


An “abstract” art like mine almost never has a “represented moment”; and so Souriau’s main theme—the time represented in the painting (Suavage’s T3)—falls to nothing in my work.  However, Souriau’s passing reference to the time of the artist making the work (Sauvage’s T1) opens for me as vast a content as Souriau’s represented and implied and imagined times and Souvages’s T3 do for them.

For both Souriau and Sauvage, the latter’s T2 is only the clock time of the moments that you are perceiving the work on the wall (or wherever). But  the T2 of this moment of viewing the work on the wall also includes all the time of the artist's life up to and including the actual time of making the work because all that time TI is encapsulated in the final work itself as you see it on the wall. And, T2 of the work also includes all the time to come for the work, including the moment and place of its final end in the trash.[4]

In her own aesthetics, Langer said the work of art is the form—not the content—for emotion. Viewers fill the work with their own feelings arising from their own experiences.[5]

But I made my art to hold my feelings—the moments I remember of beauty, love, despair, pain, hope, triumph.  I made a crystal dish for the fruits of my orchard; you took my dish, dumped out my fruit and put yours in. It's like the Roman tear  bottle I bought once from Syrian smuggler in Beirut…a nothing little bottle where the tears dried up two thousand years ago. I took the empty bottle home for a souvenir, put it in a bell jar and still admire the fragile gleam of ancient glass.

Or, as I think Langer herself said of art in her Philosophy in a New Key, when I read it when everyone was reading it in the 1950s, “Art is the form of the motion, the viewer (hearer, what ever) pours in their own content.”  So, the aestheticians’s essays on time as a form of thought, a late Romantic symphony as a form of feeling, and both as background to three weeks of painting in my personal hermitage in the Laurentian Mountains of Québec

3] Actually, in several of my now so Aion ravaged collages of the mid 1960’s, I had used T4 as my subject. There was Red Sails in The Sunset with its time compass in the center, and there was Then, Now, and Always, with its three colors to sum up the whole that is eternity. I also used Sauvage’s T3 in my Night Flight of Eagles, with its timeline from sunset to dawn. 

[4] (Note: every work of art finally ends in the trash that is the entropic dust of the end of the world.  Look at the airbase and prison the US has built at Baghram in Afghanistan. Baghram in the 1st – 2nd Cs. was the capital of the Kushan Empire, the greatest empire there has ever been across central Asia. Mahayana Buddhism was invented there then, and the 700 ft. pagoda they built and covered with gold was largest has ever been in the world—now only a flat, rocky place for cargo planes to land soldiers in yet another war on the way to dust and ashes. 

[5] For me, Baghram itself is a work of art, a form filled with my emotions of ruin and loss--like when Gibbon sat in the ruins of the Roman Forum and conceived his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.