The Ecstasy of the Eye

The union of man with God came regularly through Ekstasis — the soul must get clear of the body — and Enthousiasmos — the God must enter and dwell inside the worshipper. But the means to this union, while allegorized and spiritualized to the last degree, are sometimes of the most primitive sort. The vagaries of religious emotion are apt to reach very low as well as very high in the scale of human nature.
Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion (1)

Visual art addresses the beholder’s eye, and is about the artist’s eye, the artist’s “sightings” and construction of sight. The work of visual art is a way of sending these sightings, these artistic distillations of seeing — seeing that has become purely aesthetic, ecstatically separate from what is seen without denying its givenness to the eye — to the beholder, “impressing” her eye so that it, too, “sees,” hopefully purely, with aesthetic joy and poignant attention: opens her eye to what can be seen, whether in fact or in fantasy — whether in the world or the mind — even as it elevates seeing to an art.

If this is so, and if the basic point of serious visual art is to apotheosize the eye, to elevate it to the prime place in sensing, to celebrate it for its own sacred self and cognitive powers — which is why Aristotle said it was the highest sense — then Marialuisa Tadei’s most aesthetically pure and sublimely abstract works are those in the Oculus Dei (1998-2008) series. Made of marble and glass mosaic, and thus glowing with light that seems to emanate from the material, and displaying what can be read as the capillaries visible in the eye, Tadei’s Oculus Dei surveys us from the heights, as its installation in the church of Ravenna’s Santa Maria delle Croci in 2001 implies. If the colorful disks of Intra me (2000), made of painted perspex , are another version of Oculus Dei, then their use in the Divini Vultus (2000) installation in Bad Homburg, high in the trees of a forest — bright spots in the dark German forest —, confirms that they are the apex of being, as it were, like the all-seeing eye of God. They float above the trees in autonomous vision, even as their plenitude marks and informs the plenitude of nature. Tadei’s eye of God is benign, blessing the world it sees and blessed in itself, and non-judgmental: it is the prelapsarian eye God had when he looked upon the cosmos he created and said “it was good,” as the story of Genesis tells us.

But then what are we to make of Tadei’s Giardino dei pensieri (The Garden of Thoughts, 2001), each thought preserved in glass, like a precious relic? The thoughts — sometimes Tadei calls them “intuitions,” as in L’orto delle intuizioni (The Garden of Intuitions, 2000) — are lined up in rows, like medical specimens, waiting to be studied by a student of the brain, for they resemble brains, however mutated, even grotesquely distorted. They seem like viscerally bizarre growths, a surreal fusion of creature and plant with a bit of mineral thrown in: Tadei’s brainy growths have the same lurid absurdity — the same feverish intricacy ? as the enigmatic formations in Max Ernst’s exotic gardens. They may breed (and interbreed) in the hothouse of Tadei’s unconscious, as Il giardino bianco (The White Garden, 2000), Il giardino dell’Eden and Giardino su Marte (The Garden of Eden and The Garden on Mars, both of 2004) suggest, but they seem to be restless with consciousness, as the twists and turns of their self-entanglement imply.

For me the luminous, richly colored eyes of God and the more or less grim brains — they’re grayish and somber in comparison, however animated, not to say extravagantly organic (and manically thoughtful) ? are the antipodes of Tadei’s art. How can Tadei make both, unless she is saying that the brains need the color-filled sunlight of the eyes to flourish? What, then, is their relationship? Or is there none: Is Tadei divided against herself, a split artistic personality, playing the extremes against the middle — except there is no middle? The middle — the mediating agent — seems to be the body, as Angelo (Angel, 2002) suggests, but the body has dropped out: the angel has fallen, its body has broken — the head and arms are severed from the torso — suggesting that it is an Icarian angel. The head may continue to think, as Meditazione (Meditation, 2004) suggests — the eyes are closed and concentrated in inward contemplation, no doubt conceiving the abstract sculpture, a construction of sky-blue planes, that hovers behind it — but without the naked body something essential has been lost: primitive nature.

(Tadei’s luminous angel is worthy of Rilke’s, conveying at once beauty and terror, as he writes in the tenth Duino Elegy. Tadei’s use of bands of red neon to symbolize flowing blood is a stroke of genius, which is among the reasons I think her vision of the angel is original, certainly unusual in modern art. Tadei’s early drawings show that she is a student of the body, but it tends to dissolve in color — the colors that become even more vivid in the eyes of God — suggesting that color is finally more important to her than bodiliness, although it is possible to say that the eyes of God show the bodiliness of lived and living color. It is also worth noting that Tadei’s head is a kind of stand in for the body. Its richly sensuous, uncannily flesh-like texture, reminiscent of Medardo Rosso’s heads, suggests that it is an aesthetic distillation of lived bodiliness.)

I think “low” nature has been displaced to the “high” brains, which “explains” their paradoxically primitive look — why they seem so convulsively visceral, uncontrollably wild organic growths ? while the eyes of God are mental abstractions, like the angelic abstractions that float like luminous angels in Equilibri (1995-96), fragments of floating light building to a heavenly climax. They are cross-sections of an ascending pyramid, as it were, charged with virile light that lifts them up even as it suspends them in a space of their own. The brain may think its abstract “artistic” thoughts, as Meditation suggests, but without the glistening eyes of God — which never close, unlike human eyes, which must close to see the inner world with the mind’s eye — to shine on them, they cannot think, more precisely, experience what Jacques Maritain calls creative intuition, which is what God “used” to create the cosmos.

Indeed, Tadei’s art is cosmically ambitious, suggesting that Tadei’s brains are versions of God’s intricate brain — certainly overcomplicated compared to the human brain. More pointedly, her organic, self-generating, constantly changing brains stand to her abstract eyes of God — which are given organic character by changing color (traditionally understand as the “organic” element in nature, in contrast to line, the trans-organic abstract element that creative intuition “sees” in nature) — the dialectical way the unconscious stands to consciousness. Tadei’s art is not divided against itself, but dialectical, all the more so because her primitive brains can be understood as microcosmic versions of her macrocosmic abstract eyes: the implicit change in scale does nothing to change the imaginative fact that her abstract eyes convey the refined inner essence of her externally raw brains. The eyes of God are flowers that blossom in the fertile soil of the brain, the way the eyes of God in Divini Vultus seem to be flowers blossoming from the trees.

Tadei is a spiritual artist, that is, she uses abstract art as means to a spiritual end: it is the instrument of spiritual consciousness, as it was for Kandinskij. She returns abstraction to its spiritual origins — like Kandinskij, she believes that art is an essential part of the spiritual life, as he wrote in On the Spiritual Art (1912). And like Kandinskij the spiritual and what has loosely been called decorative beauty are connected for her: spiritual aspiration expresses itself in the meanderings of radiant pure color. But she restores something that Kandinskij eschewed: the sense of bodiliness, conveyed by her thoughts, growing wildly in the garden of her art. That is, her colors have a certain body to them, which is why however “decorative” they project in space even as they seductively draw us to and into them. Spiritualized bodiliness and the spirituality implicit in the body, or at least the thinking part of it — the brain — are conveyed by a delirium of colors, emblematic of the ecstasy that “get[s] clear of the body,” to refer to the epigraph from Gilbert Murray. But, paradoxically, ecstasy — and the decorative at its exciting colorful best, as in Tadei’s Oculi Dei, is inherently ecstatic ? is impossible without the body, if in the symbolically resonant form of the brain, conspicuously, even grossly physical for all its powers of consciousness and capacity for spiritual consciousness, the most creative of all consciousnesses.

I think it is a major task — a fundamental responsibility — of 21st century art to restore a sense of the sacred, and with that of enlightened and enlightening spirituality, in a society which has become even more materialistic than Kandinskij said it was at the beginning of the 20th century, suggesting that unconsciously it is even more aesthetically and spiritually needy than it was at the beginning of materialistic modernity. Tadei successfully addresses this ethical task, creating convincing works of spiritual art using modernist aesthetics, indicating that spiritual art is necessarily pure art (even if all pure art is not necessarily spiritual, as Minimalist abstraction makes clear). Wilhelm Worringer famously noted that as soon as we stand upright, our eyes raised to the sky — allowing our brains to survey the world at large and think about the possibility of higher things rather than only the next meal and reproducing ourselves, as the instinct-ridden brains of animals on all fours do — a “feeling of insecurity was left behind.” (2) Tadei’s brains suggest that there is an instinct for spirituality, which finds its higher object in the eye of God — a purely spiritual object — and that the feeling of insecurity can be overcome by becoming ecstatically absorbed in it, so that one becomes enthusiastically one with it and it becomes the inner eye of one’s own consciousness, securely looking skyward. Mystical union with the divine is the subtext of Tadei’s thoughtful brains, clearly spiritual diamonds in the rough.

Finally, one should note Tadei’s materials — her extraordinary sensitivity to different materials, many of which seems inherently sensitive (including color, the most precious and delicate if commonplace and familiar of materials) — and her imaginative transformation of them. She has made extensive use of perspex, no doubt because of its transparency and luminosity — its power to hold and embody light and with that “illuminate” color. Le quattro sorelle (The Four Sisters, 2004), a grouping of abstract figurative constructions, each with a totem-like character, is a colorful example. Mandala (2004) is another abstract perspex construction, this time of fragments spread flat on the ground, its vividly colored parts inlaid with little eyes of God, with an explicit meditative-spiritual point. The Mandala is broken, but we put it together in our mind’s eye. It looks like a flower, but we know it is not of the earth however literally down to earth it is. But Tadei’s use of feathers — they’re as white as the skin of her Angel and the pulverized marble in Il sogno bianco (The White Dream, 1998) — in globes placed on a flat square of mirror-like perspex, in The Garden on Mars is especially noteworthy. The feathers spontaneously generate into living beings, ambiguously plant and animal, perhaps sea anemones or enigmatic creatures kept “experimentally” alive in water. The work is deceptively simple, for its spiritual point is complex. The objects are subtly equilibrated, and the work as a whole reads as an exquisite still life. They have the rare beauty of unearthly life-forms, freshly evolved by art.

There is a quiet rapture to the piece which seems characteristic of Tadei’s works in general. Equilibri, also a kind of biomorphic abstraction, and also made of delicate feathers as well as textiles, has the same intimacy and ecstatic silence, and is also made for meditation. Like the pyramidal construction of Aluminium and perspex planes, each a smooth autonomous surface of bright yellow, in Scala del paradiso (Stairway to Heaven, 2004) these works — along with Tadei’s more “painterly” Oculi Dei ? are pure aesthetics given a spiritual dimension, even if the aesthetics of Tadei’s garden installations has more to do with the origin of life than with its spiritual goal. Her glass cross + (2000-2001), containing the colorful cosmos in its mirror, makes it explicit. If the eyes of God and the brains of nature are Tadei’s “signature concepts,” then La Sapienza Creatrice (Creative Wisdom, 2009) is her “signature work,” in Harold Rosenberg’s sense of the term, for it is a grand self-entangled yet self-contained — and self-creating — gesture. At once epic and lyrical, monumental and playful, intense and stately, radiantly colorful and triumphantly alone in open space, signaling its own openness to space — implicitly cosmic space, as though to acknowledge what Roger Fry called the “cosmic emotion”, pure abstraction awakened — it has the note of insecurity Worringer spoke of, for it seems precariously balanced, even as it partakes in the light, as its gleaming apex implies (the same purity familiar from other works). It can be read as a synthesis of the eye of God and the brain of nature — the abstract brain of God given an organic twist, as its interlocking curves suggests, but also of nature with its own creative wisdom — and as such an expressively and perceptually convincing attempt to resolve what remains the basic dialectic of modernism — the Abstraction and Empathy that Worringer influentially wrote about in 1908.

On the one hand, there is the “immense spiritual dread of space,”3 bringing with it the need for tranquility and transcendence that abstraction satisfies. Through abstraction from nature the insecurity aroused by cosmic space — “the feeling of being lost in the universe”4 — becomes transcendence of it. On the other hand, there is empathic “delight in organic form,” in “the lines and forms of the organically vital, the euphony of its rhythm,” bringing with it “the free, unimpeded activation of one’s own sense of life,”5 and with that one’s own élan vital and creativity. Tadei’s Creative Wisdom has the euphony of organic rhythm — the inner delight of vital life, as it were — and expresses her free creativity and empathic appreciation of life. At the same time, it remains ingeniously abstract, encompassing cosmic space while energetically transcending it. There is an inevitability to the work — the sublime climax of Tadei’s organic abstraction ? that the best art has. It is a work of omniscient perfection. Tadei brings out the abstract beauty in the mystery of life without losing her feeling for it, suggesting her creative wisdom.

A final word on Tadei’s place in the contemporary art scene: one of the reasons her work stands out it is that it bucks the anti-aesthetic tide. And the kitschification and ideologization of everything tide. So-called “postmodernism” involves the kitschifying of Expressionism into “Pop Expressionism” and the kitschifying of Surrealism into “Pop Surrealism” (these are the terms used, approvingly, by the director of New York’s New Museum). One might add the kitschifying of Abstraction into “Pop Abstraction.” These “postmodernist” developments are aspects of the degrading assimilation of high modernism, with its profound sense of aesthetic and emotional purpose, into the entertainment industry, more broadly, what Adorno and Horkheimer call the culture industry of mass society. It takes the idiosyncratic edge off personal experience, turning depth into shallowness, which makes the individual easier to manipulate and collectivize.

This correlates with a more theoretical “postmodernist” development: the idea that all art can be reduced to ideological statement, more particularly, that it serves a political purpose before it serves a personal purpose (supposedly it no longer has to do so) — what I would call an aesthetic-spiritual-therapeutic purpose. Indeed, the feminist motto “the personal is the political, the political is the personal,” suggesting their interchangeability, has become the credo of one kind of post-modernist thinking. It involves the complete reduction of the subjective to the socially objective, the explaining away of interior experience as the meaningless shadow of exterior experience, indeed, an accidental thorn, as it were, in the side of public power, which plucks it out by dismissing it as an illusion before it can raise questions about the reality of power. Subjective experience is the vulnerable Achilles heel of power, for it implies a subject that cannot be completely overpowered, a certain resistance, however futile because impractical, to social power. Once art loses its subjective import and becomes completely ideological it becomes socially conformist, that is, takes its secondary place in a system of dominance.

Both the kitschification and ideologization of art dumb it down, and can be understood as an aspect of the general dumbing down — dullifying and nullifying ? of consciousness in what Saul Bellow called our “distraction society.” What I admire about Tadei’s art is its aesthetic beauty and intense biophilia, and its restoration of the sense of the sacred in the terms of high modernist abstraction. These seem to be the only terms in which spiritual consciousness has a chance of surviving. Tadei’s unique gardens imply that it is still possible to make art that can be a hortus conclusus — an emotional and aesthetic garden (however bizarre its growths) of paradise, in which one can cultivate a spiritual consciousness, intuiting and meditating on the sacred (ecstatically “see,” with one’s sacred inner eye, the wisdom of creation) — in the mind- and spirit-numbing desert of pop culture, which lacks creative wisdom, which is why it is the major instrument of social power and de-individualization today.

(1). Quoted in Bertram D. Lewin, The Psychoanalysis of Elation (New York: Norton, 1950), p.145
(2). Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy (New York: International Universities Press, 1908, p.16