Matthew J. Milliner
Throngs poured into the Art Institute of Chicago last summer to witness an enormous retrospective show for Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923–97)—the biggest crowds the museum had seen in a decade. Why the draw? If Pop Art is just regurgitated consumerism, why not just go to Target where admission is free?
So I had thought. But Pop Art was the calculated revenge of the image on the hallowed, figureless canvasses of midcentury modernism, and that kind of showdown could only happen where the challenge was first issued: in a gallery. The image returned with a vengeance in Lichtenstein’s canvasses, recast in his signature Ben-Day dots. The entire history of art is summoned not only as mockery (though there is some of that), but also as testimony against the unnaturalness of modernity’s ban on figuration. “The things that I have apparently parodied,” Lichtenstein insisted, “I actually admire.”
Indeed, as Pop Art recedes into art historical purview, the big news of the last century is no longer the apotheosis of formlessness. Instead, we see that a century that began with the assault on images ended with their restoration. Modernism is the anomaly—a parenthetical interruption to the normative, image-making instincts of us humans, who are, according to the Jewish and Christian traditions, images ourselves.
As it happens, the entire city of Chicago tells a similar story, which is what made it such a fitting first stop for the Lichtenstein tour, before Washington, London, and Paris. In the 1960s, Chicago generated a native art movement that was co-belligerent with Pop Art. The appropriately named “Chicago Imagists” were a loosely assembled coalition of figurative defiance to the abstract expressionist canvases of New York. Imagist paintings are scattered throughout Chicago like so much shrapnel. In almost all of them, the screaming human form is mangled and irreverently splayed—but the point is that the human figure is there.
Chicago’s architecture, interestingly enough, tells the same story. Terracotta faces, angelic and seductive, stare back at you from the facades of the world’s first skyscrapers, lovingly molded after the Great Fire of 1871. But modernism— notwithstanding its own stoic beauty—stripped those buildings bare. Until, that is, the Harold Washington Library audaciously upended everything modernism hoped to suppress.
Designed by a rebellious student of the modernist guru Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, this fin-de-siècle building is the architectural equivalent to the Chicago Imagists. It quotes at random without, and confuses and delights within. Its blaring exterior acroteria summon ornament back from the dead, and figuration as well. Here the facial facade returns. A terracotta goddess—Ceres with her Midwestern mane of corn—stares down at passersby as if to say to modernism’s naked legacy, “Don’t you dare try that again.”
Among those who restored the image after its suppression, there was even one defector from within the ranks of New York’s abstract expressionists themselves, Philip Guston (1913–80). Due to his friendship with Jackson Pollock, Guston enjoyed a privileged seat at the ab ex table. But he retreated upstate from the city, and sold his aniconic birthright for a mess of pictures: shoes, pointing fingers, apartments, cars, clocks, and even Ku Klux Klansmen.
Why Klansmen? The standard answer is that Guston had been had harassed by the Klan earlier in life, and they now got their comeuppance as the centerpiece of hideous canvases. True enough, but there’s another way to view those pointed heads—as infants whose skulls are sometimes angled and contorted following a painful, life-threatening birth.
Bringing these figures forth from the barren void was a labor indeed, and when Guston displayed them to his colleagues at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970, the shock was no different than when Bob Dylan played the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival five years before. Guston was a Judas, but held his ground. “I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom,” he complained. “It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.”
Not to be outdone by the artists whom they study, art historians have taken this return of the image as an occasion for intensive labors of their own. Ambitious tomes have attempted to widen the stylistically driven history of art to accommodate the far-flung history of images. Islands of “fine art” are becoming less interesting to many art historians than the ocean of general visual culture that surrounds them.
“An image,” writes Hans Belting, a chief navigator of this bewildering sea, “often fluctuates between physical and mental existence. It may live in a work of art but does not coincide with it.” One senses almost a spiritual aspiration in this level of art-historical reflection, which is becoming more and more difficult to ignore. Image theory is like the calculus of art history—frustratingly complicated, but worth struggling with for being true.
But even the most daring of these new perspectives, in their most advanced Teutonic manifestations, are not nearly daring enough. The traditional religious response to this disciplinary direction should be not confusion but relief, not “Where are you going?” but “Welcome back.” For among our more recent image theorists, none are as irreducibly wild as the grandfather of them all, John of Damascus.
Rarely do those who cite this eighth-century defender of images communicate the full breadth of his justification for art. John lived in a time, not unlike the modernist era, when images were banned—a ban backed by the authority of emperors, not just fashion. And unlike many modern image theorists, John knew that if one attempts to answer the question, “What is an image?” without getting metaphysical, the question never actually gets asked.
How does John do it? First, like a rollercoaster operator strapping in a terrified ten-year-old, John defines his terms: “An image is a likeness and pattern and impression of something, showing in itself what is depicted.”
And then he pulls the brake release. When, John wonders, did images begin? Did they start with the earliest artists? Had John known of the first of cave paintings at Altamira, Lascaux, or Chauvet, might he have referred to them? This would be far too tame. “The first natural and undeviating image of the invisible God is the Son of the Father, showing in himself the Father.” Which is to say that for this John, in the beginning was the Image.
Before the inauguration of time and matter as we know them (as if a word like “before” can even function at this level of discourse!), the Trinity itself was swimming in exquisitely accurate images—the Son imaging the Father, and the Spirit imaging the Son. This teeming wellspring then overflowed—no, it burst— into a glistening cataract of additional images.
First, for John, came the images in God’s mind of everything that would ever come to be—from electrons to elephant trunks (including those swirling pillars of interstellar gas that astrophysicists call “elephant trunks”). All of these, before they were made, were initially images in their artist’s divine mind.
And when these things were made—here is a tricky part—they continued to be images, for creation itself is an infinite network of images, each of them “intimating to us dimly reflections of the divine....”
In John’s great chain of images, humans came next. Genesis, after all, begins with reverse idolatry, not humans making images of false gods, but the true God making images of humans. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” goes the famous verse, which Paul Ricoeur considered so inexhaustibly rich that it had to be freshly interpreted each century. John drew upon the best of those interpreters—the early church fathers who preceded him. They pointed out that according to this famous passage, “image” is one thing and “likeness” another. “Man received the honor of God’s image in his first creation,” writes Origen, “whereas the perfection of God’s likeness was reserved for him at the consummation.”
That consummation, it will come as no surprise, is offered in Christ—the original image—the true likeness of God in our midst, perfect without remainder. But this is no static perfection! The image of Christ is so attractive that it endlessly replicates itself, steadily summoning us lesser images to contribute a hitherto unknown coloration to its ever widening spectrum.
The human journey is therefore from image unto image. “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust,” writes Paul, “we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49). Or, more famously, “For those whom he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).
It is only after all this—after the metaphysical work that climbs to the highest heavens and back again—that John gets around to making his case for images that are made with human hands. But because that justification for human-made images—art—is freighted with such metaphysical force, it succeeds. Although he did not live to see his cause vindicated, John’s arguments—providentially made possible by Muslim political asylum—carried the day. Icons reasserted themselves in the life of the eastern Christian empire, just as images have recently emerged from a time of modernist censure.
Clearly, there are differences between the Byzantine vindication of icons and the more recent postmodern restoration of images. But one last hero of figuration, George Tooker (1920–2011), brings the two revivals remarkably close. Like Stanley Spencer or Lucien Freud, Tooker was among the painters who lived through modernism without ever giving up on figuration, and who still managed to attain notice.
Painted in the older egg tempera tradition (“The [method’s] slowness fits me,” he explained), Tooker’s work became a part of the canon, acquired by major American museums. Dejected by New York life at mid-century, Tooker translated urban alienation into paint, seeing subways and waiting rooms as modern purgatories. But his New York Times obituary inexplicably limited itself to this initial aspect of his career: “George Tooker, Painter Capturing Modern Anxieties, Dies at 90.” A far more insightful summation is, as one art historian put it, “From Anxiety to Agape.” Tooker journeyed, in his own words, from painting “this is what we are forced to suffer in life,” to images of “this is what we should be.”
Like Guston, Tooker found it necessary to abscond from Manhattan. From his base in Vermont, he continued to employ figural art to restore the image to those who were denied dignity, such as interracial couples and homosexuals. That Tooker was gay is no secret—much less known is that following the death of his partner, he converted to Catholicism.
Religious imagery then surfaced more prominently in his canvases. When asked to paint an altarpiece for his church, Tooker produced a polyptych of the seven sacraments where the Eucharist transfigures his Vermont hills. Tooker’s paintings, it seems to this observer, are as at home in the image-rich universe of John of Damascus as are Byzantine icons themselves. In place of the gold background is a softening, forgiving light of affection that envelops every figure, which is to say, Tooker somehow painted love.
Still, modernity’s interdiction persisted. Tooker’s Stations of the Cross, however successful, are curious for being faceless—showing the hand gestures alone. “I have certain problems; it’s a matter of painting Our Lord,” Tooker explained. “That’s a problem I haven’t resolved at this point.” There is much to be said, of course, for the kind of artistic humility that, on pious principle, demurs from representing the face of God.
And yet, urged by Father Rouelle, the priest who brought him to Catholicism, Tooker resolved his crisis with a solitary drawing of the resurrected Lord, one of his latest works. Christ—modestly wrapped in the shroud—stretches with delight as if from a long and satisfying rest, a sort of Easter day calisthenics to adjust to newly risen life.
“If there were no such thing as the resurrection of the flesh,” wrote Hans Urs von Balthasar, “then the truth would lie with Gnosticism and every form of idealism down to Schopenhauer and Hegel, for whom the finite must literally perish if it is to become spiritual and infinite.” But here in Tooker’s sketch is “the infinite within the finitude of form.”
The return of images in the wake of modernism, wherever it has surfaced, is a welcome development—and its sundry participants may not require full-scale, cosmic justification. But should they ever need it, the Damascene’s soaring cathedral of image theory, and George Tooker’s hard-won Jesus, wait.