Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Keeping House

Near the beginning of Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping, narrator Ruth Stone describes an act of violent substitution that resonates through the harrowing events to follow. Ruth tells how her grandfather, the patriarch of the family, had emerged from a subterranean dwelling—“no more a human stronghold than a grave”—on the plains of the American West to build a sprawling homestead along an ancient mountain lake called Fingerbone. Into that lake the grandfather then fatally plunges on a moonless night when a spectacular derailment sends his train down to the watery depths, leaving nothing but “a suitcase, a seat cushion, and a lettuce." If the descent of the train—that signal exemplar of technological modernity—to the pit of the lake suggests a loss of master narratives, the conversion of the patriarch and two other train-riders into the most mundane, transient artifacts (valise, cushion, vegetable) inaugurates the cycles of object-oriented temporality into which Ruth’s family then moves. Stripped from illusions of progressive advance, Ruth tells us, the family “had no reason to look forward, nothing to regret. Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle. Breakfast time. Supper time. Lilac time. Apple time.”

Placed within an “outsized landscape” whose door history had never really darkened, life in the rambling house begins to sway. For, beneath the plashing blue Fingerbone lie older waters “smothered and nameless and altogether black”—waters that reek of the dead and, like a good Latourian hybrid, are “full of people." And with the new regime of Ruth’s aunt Sylvie installed in the lakeside home, management of the oikos becomes a veritable satire of bourgeois economics. Thrift is demonstrated as the family amasses and arrays valueless items. Meals are eaten in the dark as the boundaries between house and landscape, nature and culture, become ever more permeable. All the while, the lake brims and swells with the persisting materials it holds in cold storage as they await their fiduciary, cognitive, and eschatological redemptions. In a reverie, Ruth imagines sweeping a giant net across “the black floor of Fingerbone [to find] a great army of berry gatherers and hunters and strayed children. There would be a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbors and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole.” For what, she wonders, “are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?”

In her stimulating paper, Pamela Karimi quotes Daniel Miller’s claim that “just as there is no pre-objectified culture, there is no post-objectified transcendence.” Yet, the desire for Ruth enunciates for restitution amidst and for the serried thickness of material life—a movement from fragmentation to redemption, to adopt Caroline Walker Bynum’s turn of phrase—resounds through much recent writings in material culture studies, thing theory and the conjunction of anthropological, SSK and other fields I take to be denoted by the label “new materialism.” Finding counterpoint to the dystopian textures of Philip K. Dick’s futures in his fictive conceptions of humble clay pots, Bill Brown, for one, has staked out the interpretive hope driving the thing theorist’s “methodological fetishism” (in Arjun Appadurai’s famous phrase) as a tactical suspension of the hermeneutics of suspicion. This is, Brown writes “not an error so much as it is a condition for thought, new thoughts about how inanimate objects constitute human subjects, how they move them, how they threaten them, how they facilitate or threaten their relation to other subjects.” And while recent scholars following, say, Pamela Smith and Michael Cole have used works of seemingly excessive materiality to positively valorize “artisanal epistemology” or the intelligence of the goldsmith, it is useful to recall the tone and directionality subtending the materialist’s preferred genre of the case study. As literary historian Jim Chandler reminds us, “the word case, as its etymological root suggests, has to do with falls and befallings, with the world of chance and contingency and the positing of worlds – normative orders – against which chance and contingency might be established as such.”

Falling like a stone—falling like Helen Stone, the mother of our narrator in Housekeeping, into the dark lake—brings us back to Ed Eigen’s scintillating talk. While his felicitous title “Lithographies” nearly literalizes the writing of her Family Stone that Ruth Stone undertakes in the novel, the dispersal of staining, stony materials across the face of waters that he narrates so compellingly echoes Ruskin’s scattering of miniature stones in dust even as it evokes Housekeeping’s seeming flat plot. Yet, like the “stone oil” or petroleum that pools and pulses below the Middle Eastern cities in Pamela Karimi’s analysis, the hegemonic force of those liquids to organize the thoughts and plots of those above becomes increasingly insistent as Housekeeping reaches its violent climax. “What is thought, after all,” Ruth asks as she sails above the eternal, encyclopedic museum of material life that is the lake, “what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate?” Like the swirling waters of the planet Solaris in Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic film, these dark, deep immiscible materials that drive wars so that we can drive cars or that enable the production of marbled accidents continue their economies—they continue to keep house—below us, beneath us, in us.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Thinking in Black and White

There has been a special delivery in the Sanchez household recently, which might explain to you the protracted period of radio silence and the dearth of posts. Well, rather than apologizing for the inevitable given the sleepless nights and the weird world of baby-life into which yours truly has been thrust, I'll share with you a few of the drawings I have banged out at odd moments of night and day usually during baby-feedings.

As opposed to the kinds of drawings normally done, you'll observe that these sketches are both in pen and ink and drawn on a really crappy sketchbook I keep at the side of the bed to jot down dreams, weird images that come to me as I'm falling asleep and experiments in things like blind contour drawing.

I make the point as -- whatever their success as portraits -- these drawings have a kind of bravery that I think carries over from the expendability of their material support and the free-and-easy spirit that had governed my relation to this book long before there was a baby to be drawn with it. As opposed to the expensive and rare sketchbooks I usually haul back from London and use for quasi-precious, laboriously rendered pencil drawings, these have to be banged out in, say, half an hour. And the rule of the game with these -- at least practiced so far -- is that there is no room for correction of the ink as it stains into the cheap paper.

What makes the game fun is that the subtleties of shadowing on the baby's cheeks or, say, the weird proportions of their facial features need to be carved out on the white ground of the page with an almost uncorrectable black that demands exaggeration and that disfigures just as easily as it figures the small subject.

All of this drawing in black and white got me thinking as babies themselves are, so I have read, supposed to see black and white only. Apparently, newborns like our are able to see color for some six months or something. And this brings me around to a curious toy passed onto us by a friend.

It is a polychrome, plush dragonfly, approx-
imately six inches high and eight inches wide. Blue and yellow plastic rings hang from its tail and rattle when the toy is manipulated. If a yellow, orange, red, purple and green rainbow spans its abdomen, the real interest is, as it were, centrifugally distributed through the wings where layers textures of, say, corduroy, terry cloth and cotton (as at upper left) rub against one another, but where touch yields surprising sounds. That is, the wings are filled with some king of material the produces a crinkly sound when fondled. For some (to me, inexplicable) reason, a red, plastic ladybug can be removed like a pocket-watch from the wing at lower right.

And, as in the detail above, the user can find their distorted reflection in the mirror perceptible through apertures in the wings. Is it too strange that I hope our beautiful daughter's confrontation of her split subjectivity in the Lacanian mirror stage is mediated by the experience of identifying herself through a scrim of dragonfly wings?

That sounds absurd, but it is kind of the point. For, branded by Lamaze, this toy is clearly designed to instantiate and encourage some theory of childhood development -- one which I might well research were I not, in fact, currently assisting in the practice of childhood development. Following on from what I read in the latest issue of Art History under the banner of "the clever object," it strikes me that a very interesting story might be told about the conceptual aims of this pedagogical artifact and its embeddedness in art-historical tradition. Why? Well, consider the verso to this polychrome recto.

Not perfect black and white, I will admit. But, clearly the backs of the wings speak in the language of black and white that babies are supposed to understand. Now, what else has wings whose black and white backs conceal brilliant polychrome interiors of great diversity and visual interest?

Oh, only an entire tradition of early Netherlandish painting culminating in the Ghent Altarpiece where grisaille wings open to display the dazzling body of Christ in all his revelatory glory. Now, if the chrysalis of my drawings were to yield such an incredible, colorful show!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Milk and Blood: Re-reading Jeff Wall

At the beginning of his short (that is, four paragraph) essay "Photography and Liquid Intelligence" (1989), Canadian photographer Jeff Wall refers the reader to his photograph Milk (1984). Much is happening in Wall's strongly planar image. Like one of Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park pictures turned on its side, Milk parses into four vertical strips. As read right to left, subtle shades of brick tone interweave like feathers on a bird's wing in the largest panel, which terminates in the crisp zip of black cast by the ruddy, jutting abutment at center left. Cooler tones abound in the sap-green shrub and the cerulean blue of sky reflected in the glass that separates us from the strong descending diagonal of railing that traverses heavens down to earth.

Back on the ground—at "street level," below our point of view—a man crouches, his proper left knee gathered to his body by a flexed arm. Held at or just above his crotch is a carton of milk cloaked in a paper bag. From it issues a veil of white liquid as the titular milk spurts upwards to describe a half arc. But, what has caused this explosion? The grasping hand that holds the carton betrays less the violent squeeze seemingly required to create this spray nor does his static right arm indicate any recent sideways motion.

Directed instead by the punching gesture of the figure's left fore-arm, we might think of Harold Egerton's Bullet through an Apple (1964), in which the visual rupture is caused not by the agent holding the object yielding the white spray. Rather, that visual action has been produced by some force entering the picture plane in the direction of my ekphrasis above—that is, right to left.

None of this concerns Wall in his 1989 essay. Instead, he uses Milk to exemplify an interface of the natural and the mechanical that he takes to have a particular salience in photography. "I think this is because," Wall explains, "the mechanical character of the action of opening and closing the shutter - the substratum of instantaneity which persists in all photography - is a logical relation, a relation of necessity, between the phenomenon of the movement of a liquid, and the means of representation." (Wall, 90)

As the stasis of Milk's tectonic planes are activated visually by liquid eruption, so photography in Wall's mythic telling becomes animated by this opposition of the dry and the wet. If the waters used in the traditional, chemical developing tray bears "a memory-trace of very ancient production processes - of washing, bleaching, dissolving, and so on," they are sharply differentiated from the dry realms of lenses and mechanics. Here is Wall's compelling statement of this point, and its implication: "This part of the photographic system is more usually identified with the specific technological intelligence of image-making, with the projectile or ballistic nature of vision when it is augmented and intensified by glass (lenses) and machinery (calibrators and shutters). This kind of modern vision has been separated to a great extent from the sense of immersion in the incalculable which I associate with 'liquid intelligence.'" (Wall, 90-93)

Wall's choice of Milk, thus, begins to take on an additional valence. Like that fluid prompted by mammalian gestation and rupturing here from its commodified encapsulation, photography itself is generated by the meeting of cold, wet, incalculable intelligence and dry rationality. However nuanced Wall's reading of gender may otherwise be, ancient, humoral elements - cold, wet feminine matter being organized by hot, dry masculine form - are being mobilized here to model photography in Milk's lactative image. If milk is made after sexual reproduction, so Milk—instance of and metonym for photography—follows the conjunction of the dry and the wet, the projectile and the immersive, the rational and the incalculable that structure Wall's broader conception of the medium.

Whether or not this is a heteronormative myth Wall is spinning, a different question quickly surfaces if we trace possible roots for his conception of photography's liquid and dry intelligences. One possible source is the work of British-born psychologist Raymond Cattell (1905-1998). Little known in art history, Cattell was both highly influential and massively productive. "The author of fifty-six books, more than five hundred journal articles and book chapters, and some thirty standardized instruments for assessing personality and intelligence in a professional career that spanned two-thirds of a century," so one recent interpreter has put it, "... Cattell must be considered one of the most influential research psychologists ever." (Tucker, 1)

Among numerous accomplishments, contributions and accolades, Cattell articulated a crucial cleavage within human aptitude, bifurcating the study of general intelligence (or g in the technical parlance) into what he called "fluid" and "crystallized" intelligence (or gf and gc, respectively). Here is Cattell's description of these discrete native versus learned aptitudes from 1964: "Crystallized ability loads more highly those cognitive performances in which skilled judgment habits have become crystallized (hence its name) as the result of earlier learning application of some prior, more fundamental general ability to these fields. ... Fluid general ability, on the other hand, shows more in tests requiring adaptation to new situations, where crystallized skills are of no particular advantage." (Cattell 1964, 2-3) Expressed most clearly in situations requiring improvisation, fluid intelligence was importantly informed by biology if not exclusively reducible to it. He puts it this way:

For any same-age group the nature-nurture variance ratio will be much higher for gf than gc on the hypothesis that gf is directly physiologically determined whereas gc is a product of environmentally varying, experientially determined investments of gc. ... However, although it is our hypothesis that gf is biologically and physiologically determined, as a function of total cortical cell count, this does not mean that one would expect anything like complete hereditary determination. For environment includes gestation period influences and later physical trauma and physiological change, all 
affecting gf. (Cattell 1964, 3-4)

One might indeed expect this attention to multifarious factors informing intelligence as Cattell himself significantly advanced and repeatedly championed multi-variant factor analysis in the study of human personality. No fan of Cattell's work, intellectual biographer William H. Tucker nonetheless acknowledge this as a lasting, influential insight. "The distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence," Tucker writes, "is recognized as a landmark contribution, cited not only in every book on intelligence but also in numerous introductory psychology books. ... The separation of fluid and crystallized intelligence has been one of Cattell's most enduring substantive contributions of psychology." (Tucker, 53-4)

However, heredity plays an interestingly forceful role in Cattell's thinking about intelligence. Not only is the fluid more nimble than the crystallized intelligence in his scheme, but that the former is also enduringly constitutive of an individual's ability. Where fluid intelligence abides, crystallized, book learning decays and is itself, as it were, already dead. Cattell had turned to an instructive turn of phrase drawn from watery depths to make that point in an earlier publication: "If the crystallized abilities are, as it were, a dead coral formation revealing by its outlines the limits of growth of the original living tissue, the crystallized abilities will approximately the same intercorrelations as the original fluid abilities." (Cattell 1943, 178-9) Thus, in correlating the tabulated data of gf and gc, Cattell declines the possibility that these two modes of intelligence combine some new form. Instead, he argues, they need to be read through "a single influence, which is fluid ability as it stood during the formative period of crystallized ability, [that] is causative to the present levels of both." (Cattell 1964, 15) Living, physiologically determined, and significantly biologically heritable, fluid intelligence describes a threshold of possibility that can be analyzed in the decaying crystallized artifacts of which it is itself the cause.

We might note here that Raymond Cattell was a committed eugenicist. As historian William H. Tucker argues, Cattell shared with mentors Charles Spearman, Cyril Burt, and William McDougall "the belief in the power of heredity as an article of faith necessary for justification of the eugenic agenda, more than as a scientifically demonstrable result. In 1938, discussing the deleterious social effects that would be caused by the disproportionate reproduction of the less intelligent, Cattell declared it an accepted fact that 'mental capacity is largely inborn.'" (Tucker, 67) So, even if as he would put it in 1964 that "does not mean ... complete hereditary determination," the fluid intelligence that animates -- that makes possible the conditions for the crystallized intelligence derived from it -- is still significantly biological and inheritable through sexual reproduction. It flows through the blood.

Is blood to Cattell's fluid intelligence, then, what milk is to Wall's liquid intelligence? In both schemes, wet intellect is valorized. For Cattell, it underpins, enables and outstrips crystallized abilities in its improvisatory fluency. For Wall, it is the "concrete opposite" of photo's dry rationality that menaces, undermines and extends far beyond optics and mechanics. In both schemes too, animating intelligence is contingent upon the mating of sexualized components. This is literally true for Cattell, since part of the eugenicist aim of his project was control reproductive rates of the less intelligent thus increasing the net threshold of genetically-heritable material (and hence, fluid intelligence) in the population at large. As argued above, though, Wall's move is more metaphorical, positioning photography's particular cleverness at conjunction of wet, immersive liquids and dry, projectile tools. Photography is "perfectly adapted" (Wall, 90)—it is, like Cattell's more evolved humans, more highly sentient—insofar as it is generated from this fertile meeting of different intelligences of which milk, as lactating spray, is effect or, as seminal ejaculation, is complementary cause.

In the concluding paragraphs of the 1989 essay, Wall indicates that he means this in more than a metaphorical sense, I think. He calls our attention to Andrei Tarkovsky's classic cinematic work, Solaris (1972). In the film, Wall puts it, "some scientists are studying an oceanic planet. Their techniques are typically scientific. But the ocean is itself an intelligence which is studying them in turn." (Wall, 93) Indeed, what we see in the still above is one of those scientists, Kris Kelvin, holding on his lap a simulacrum of his dead wife, Hari, who has mysteriously re-appeared on board the space ship. This Hari is not purely a product of his imagination as some Athena burst forth from the forehead of Zeus. But, nor is she exclusively a delusion foisted upon Kelvin by the liquid intelligence of the churning ocean planet far below. Instead, she is a hybrid fusion of Kelvin's intellect and the sentient ocean who begins to gain self-conscious, to take on a life of her own.

It is precisely this feature of autonomous life born from the mating of "concrete opposites" that Wall targets as salient model for photography. Here's how he concludes his essay:

It [the planet Solaris] experiments on the experimenters by returning their own memories to them in the form of hallucinations, perfect in every detail, in which people from their pasts appear in the present and must be related to once again, maybe in a new way. I think this was a very precise metaphor for, among many other things, the interrelation between liquid intelligence and optical intelligence in photography, or in technology as a whole. In photography, the liquids study us, even from a great distance. (Wall, 93)

Is Jeff Wall's thinking somehow infected with the eugenicist baggage of Raymond Cattell? Has Wall even heard of Cattell and his distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence? I would resist insisting on either of these claims. What is more compelling, I think, is attending to ways in which Wall's imagining of photography's vitality—its capacity for higher, autonomous thought—is sprung from a matrix of sexualized union that was itself the site of Cattell's crucial, genetic transfer and abiding concern. As blood is to milk, so Cattell and his compatriots set parameters (unconscious though they may be) from which Wall's liquid intelligence cannot escape.


Cattell, Raymond B. "The Measurement of Adult Intelligence." Psychological Bulletin 40, 3 (March 1943): 153-193.

________________. "Theory of Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence: A Critical Experiment." Journal of Educational Psychology 54, 1 (1964): 1-22.

Tucker, William H. The Cattell Controversy: Race, Science, and Ideology. University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Wall, Jeff. "Photography and Liquid Intelligence."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Shadow Game

Brother parsed helpings of turkey into plastic yogurt cups as Uncle washed the dishes. With the roasting pan soaking in the white enamel sink, he spread the glass tumblers out to dry, their gold-leaf lips pressed into a folded tea towel. Father herded chairs in from the library, banging his shins on their struts and muttering curses. Mother lifted the Lazy Susan from the center of the table, its circling, painted stripes enclosing a dusty African violet, wax candle pilgrims and cut crystal sugar dish into a diagram of a minor cosmology. Grandmother rocked by the fire, her steely eyes following all. When the last of the dishes had been cleared away and the soapstone woodstove stocked, Grandfather made his exit. In perennial khakis and white dress shirt, he would pause on the threshold of the glowing porch like Don José in Velázquez’s great picture, a lone hand held aloft in silent adieu.

A chair squeaked in the kitchen as Brother dealt out two decks of vinyl cards over the table’s oily grooves. Shadows danced, eyes squinted to sort cards in the low orb of light cast by the lone hanging lantern. Scores from the last game were read aloud to nods of appreciation and Grandmother took the lead in schooling the new initiates in the rules of play. Others shouted out the nuances.

“Aces high, deuces low, no jokers.”
“Always follow suit!”
“If you can’t follow suit, you can trump.”
“The aim is to take exactly as many tricks as you bid. That way, you get your bid plus ten.”
“But cards can cancel!”
“Because there are two decks, two aces of spades could be played in the same hand; the second eliminates the first. In that case, the next highest card played in the suit led would take the trick.”
“Unless it has been trumped!”
“And that’s why they call it ‘Oh Hell.’”

Father became positively rosy when bidding a hand at Oh Hell. An off-suit jack-ten combination, a singleton queen: those were pure gold. Staring at a hand cut in alternating patterns of black and red, he carefully selected a comment from the slim repertoire of accepted, card-table wit: “Are you sure these cards were shuffled?” Or: “Who dealt this hand? Thank you!” Then the bidding began. With an initial ten cards dealt to each player, Uncle would record a sequence of ebbing, low-ball undulations that built in height with tidal proximity to Father. The bid’s audacity never lost its effect for being expected. “Four!” he might shout gleefully. Once the silence of play descended into the rhythmic thrum of vinyl cards on the wooden table, Father’s plan would quickly unravel. His jack would be taken by a trump six. That string of low trumps and off-suit face cards on which he had pinned his hopes would go missing entirely. Ambushed in a palace coup, his queen would return as a widow with but one trick leaving Father recounting just how difficult his hand had been—how that unexpected and perfectly foolish play by Nephew had shattered his strategy.

Father bred a game of big bidding and bigger talk. Egged on by Grandmother (who never let her reputed maternal instincts get in the way of success at cards), he made bold estimates. He took wild gambles and loved the tell of his losses nearly as much as his rare victories. When he died, and when Grandmother followed him to the grave fourteen months later, the shape of play caved in upon itself. Then, the shadow game began.

At first, its presence was nearly imperceptible. For, Brother and I had long haunted the darker recesses of play, moving unobtrusively beneath the glaring, spot-lit boasts of the elders. Ours was a topsy-turvy world of stealth and intrigue where disposal rather than accumulation was the objective. Twos and threes held sovereign. There, face cards carried all the taboo danger of a royal body. They were to be flushed out when the play turned safely off suit or jettisoned into the milky wake of Grandmother’s inevitable trump leads. Risky nines and even jacks had to be wedged into cross-cut thickets. Cards were to be cancelled whenever possible. “Zero” was our standard bid and the horizon of our thoroughly pragmatic calculations. Nonetheless, one of us often won. “And the meek shall inherit the earth,” Uncle liked to say with a grimace.

With the chairs now gathered and the cards dealt once more, we could feel the familiar spaces inside the game changing. Brother cut to Uncle, Uncle dealt to the grieving couple who had joined us for Thanksgiving dinner, and the rules of the game recited. Once proud kings and their suited entourages had opened broad avenues of play as Grandmother’s thrust and Father’s parry entertained encircled crowds with their ritual violence. Banners hung, gauntlets thrown, and all eyes turned to the spectacle in that public square, Brother and I could steal down alleyways, pinching pockets and turning tricks. The lips that had pursed—those earnest brows that had furrowed over clutched cards—were bent to build spectacular edifices high on show, sharp in scorn for careless play, but long with shadows. Without that billowing tent of big-top bidding, ours had become a low-rise, almost subterranean dwelling. A landscape of single resident occupancy bed-sits spread now before us populated by bids in digital increments of alternating ones and zeroes.

Cousin moved into Grandmother’s house after she died. Mother looked at her meager options in Town after Father’s death. With some repairs and much-needed insulation installed, she lived on in the adjoining barn house. But, if the houses could be filled and the buildings repaired, the architecture of the game had collapsed like a house of cards. What do you do when you can’t build back up? Instinctively, we built down. Once a furtive act done to eliminate dross, discarding became an art-form. Irrelevant to official play and impotent for the game’s acquisitive aims, a six of diamonds played under a spades lead and clubs trump begot bejeweled responses. We built intricate runs of syncopating patterns, aligning diamonds in numerical order and its reverse, all off-suit and immaterial to play. Symmetries abounded; a discarded three called for another three to be played. As we all now bid zero, ours became an age of cancelling. Tricks were taken by that lowly lead of a five of spades, which nonetheless stood alone—after all the cancelling and off-suit matching—as the only valid card left in play.

It’s not that our shadow game broke the rules of the old game, exactly. We all still followed suit; we made bids. Some won, some lost. It was more that the encircling play mandated by those rules had come to render visible the spiraling vortex that had opened before us and between us. Unmoored from the chairs that now sat empty and indifferent to the proud aims that had once filled them, the game showed us that shape of darkness. And we ran through it, like children chasing fireflies.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Working in the Dark

On view at the newly re-opened Yale University Art Gallery is Thomas Eakins's stunning 1872 portrait Kathrin, which I was able to study for a while this afternoon. The photograph above offers a much clearer resolution of the picture as image than can be seen under gallery conditions. Where the shadow cast across the sitter's face merges nearly seamlessly into the chair's plum-colored head rest in the photo, it leaps shrilly forward in the gallery as the spotlights glare off the picture's heavily-worked paint film. Similarly, if the photograph yields a definable footstool in the pictorial foreground, the canvas itself is much more ambiguous, compelling the beholder to sound the floor's floral shallows to find exactly where the vertical support of the stool cedes to the surrounding, spiraling arabesques of carpet.

Drawing from Walter Benjamin, Michael Fried has described what he sees as the tensions between the horizontal plane of drawing and the vertical plane of painting in Eakins's work. Reflecting on my drawing after Eakins, I think that Fried probably has a point. Eakins's image prompts an oscillation effectively re-enacted in the drawing as I dutifully (that is, somnolently) retraced the finicky contours of the imposing armoire as at upper left in the detail and then got lost in the tonal world of the sitter's immediate environment in the center. What struck me most as I drew this picture, though, is Eakins's willingness to work in the dark, as it were. Although this is nominally a portrait, he seems to delight in obscuring the sitter's visage. He runs together her high-lighted nose and cheek, the join of her chin and neck, the boundaries between her right, fan-holding for arm and the project arm of her chair. Eakins renders the "action" of the picture (such as it is) in such subtle tonal variations that it verges upon perversity. As I only realized after about 40 minutes of drawing, the sitter's arched left hand is not only passing over the globe of the chair's arm in a kind of benediction, but she is playing with the kitten in her lap who stares out from the picture plane. Passages like this are such a pleasure to draw not only because they deliver the frisson of disclosing that which had previously resisted pictorial resolution, but they also encourage drawing in a way that aims toward a disintegration of graphic closure. Since you can't see what you're doing as you work in the dark, the act of drawing is freed back to an atavistic scribbling. Boundaries are sacrificed; the isomorphisms of sitter and sittee (arms and arms, head and head-rest, etc) are embraced, while—to my great surprise and delight, at least—these renunciations turn out to deliver back interesting and otherwise-unknown information about the object of study.

An aesthetics of invisiblity; a confusion or merging of figure and ground such as we might find in slightly later works by Vuillard (as at left)—all of those can certainly be found in Eakins's conjunction of carpet and footstool. But, prolonging our appreciation of the twilight—our willingness to wait on that shadowy threshold of understanding—that seems to me to be the gift that Eakins offers us.