SOME YEARS AGO Charlottesville, Virginia, was abuzz with the news that a wealthy Roman Catholic couple on an estate near town had built a private chapel for worship and had commissioned a painting of themselves in the presence of a resurrected Jesus Christ. My wife was amazed; what effrontery! I defended the couple, pointing out the long art tradition of donors, usually emerging humbly from the bottom of a painting with pious expressions, being shown only feet away from their savior. Okay, but what were they wearing in the painting, she wondered? Evening dress? Casual wear? I was more curious as to how Jesus was depicted. Was he in the air or earthbound, blond or dark, and how was he dressed? The couple were entitled to wear whatever they felt comfortable in, because it was, after all, their painting and their chapel, but Jesus somehow belongs to a community of believers, and any number of toes ask to be stepped on in such a project. Granted, Renaissance Florence held a certain consensus as to their Lord’s appearance, but since then, painting Jesus must rank with the problem of painting angels; Gustave Courbet famously said he would paint an angel when he saw one. How can an artist visualize events from the New Testament in 2011?
As a painter living 150 years after Courbet, I have an added problem. I’m not a believer. (And Courbet himself, as a follower of Proudhon’s socialism, probably had more than the one objection to painting angels.) I was raised not by communists, but by fellow travelers; my father had wanted to join the Lincoln Brigade in Spain; my mother voted for Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election. We only said grace when my grandmother visited—though for all I know, Grandma Burwell wasn’t a believer either—but those murmured and mumbled words were the sum total of my exposure to religion. We had no Bible, but rather a copy of Das Kapital, which my father hid high on a bookshelf, having been called in and grilled by the FBI and followed to work clandestinely until the United States realized he was a minnow, not a big fish. Plankton, perhaps. If religion was the opiate of the masses, we were a drug-free household.
As a teen I became obsessed with such issues as why the Russian Revolution had failed, and whether things would have been any better under Trotsky than Stalin. (I decided, after reading about Kronstadt, that it was unlikely.) Marxism considered history with an almost messianic fervor, as a secular religion, complete with saviors and a promised paradise outside itself. Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon was, for a time, my favorite book, both condemning the Soviet experiment and evoking the “oceanic sense,” a nondenominational spirituality suggesting something greater looming almost within reach. My childhood friend Nick studied comparative religion when we both arrived at Columbia College in 1967, and he argued that a common urge or intuition lay behind all world religions, and while drugs may have influenced us both, this was an appealing premise. When we helped take over Grayson Kirk’s office during the 1968 protests against the proposed expansion into Morningside Park and Columbia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, some of the players acted as if the classless society was a done deal. I was skeptical, having read enough history to know that America has, for the most part, managed to inoculate itself against radical change. Some in Low Library looked like Trotsky wannabes, though I respected Tony, the Maoist in charge, who was under no illusions whatsoever.
After the police moved in and it was all over but the bleeding, I took off for California, then hitchhiked to Florida. I got a ride into Key West from a very kind minister who let me stay at his chapter house somewhere in New Town, where I discovered a box of Bible comic books. This proved a particularly unintimidating introduction to Christianity. Obviously, I already knew about Jesus, though for me he had credentials similar to those of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But I had a certain amount of catching up to do when it came to the stories themselves, and they proved surprisingly visual when presented in comic-book form. On graduating I embarked on a three-month grand tour of Europe, hitchhiking from England to Greece alongside the girlfriend I had lived with in college. The Bible comic books came in handy when I entered a church for the first time in my life. A cathedral, actually: Notre Dame in Paris. Being immature, I thought it amusing to smooch with Sherrie in the pews, but I have to admit that the atmosphere carried a certain weight, a sonorous authority. I didn’t care for Saint Peter’s in Rome nearly as much, partly because a creepy little guy whose job it was to make sure women were decent stopped us at the massive front doors. We only managed to get in when Sherrie discreetly took off her wrap-around dress and jury-rigged it to go below her knees. I wondered if the whole thing, clothes and edifice, would fall to the floor as she shuffled through the massive, cavernous interior. The scale of the basilica struck me as baldly announcing that the only way to heaven, or even to an oceanic sense, was through its immense portals, and whatever latent hostility I had to organized religion became fairly explicit.
Nevertheless, in Venice’s San Zaccaria I found my future, in the form of a mind-bogglingly beautiful painting of the Virgin with saints by Giovanni Bellini. Surrounded by what seem like acres of theatrically hyperactive Bible stories in the manner of Tintoretto, the Bellini stands in self-reflective quiet, a meditative moment of perfect stillness. It made me want to make something that could share some of its sumptuous gravity, something that would be its own best argument for redemption. Nietzsche called Bach the one good argument he knew for the existence of God, and while Bellini did not make me less of an agnostic, it did argue that something could be done to counterbalance the litany of horrors perpetrated by our species. I returned to the States and have painted for almost forty years, Bellini’s example still hovering in my head, not as a call to Christian belief, but as a reminder of quality, beauty, and emotional profundity. Bellini’s Saint Francis in Ecstasy in New York’s Frick Collection is even more accessible, partly because the saint’s life is such an antidote to the authoritarian tendencies of organized religion, and partly because he stands in an endlessly deep landscape, a reminder of where our salvation might really occur: on this beautiful earth. Camille Corot, one of our greatest landscape painters, said if he had to worship something it would be the sun, and Francis seems to agree. He spreads his arms, opening himself totally to its rays, resulting in almost secular stigmata, or so it seems to someone more comfortable with American transcendentalism than Catholic theology.
My wife is perhaps even less disposed to curiosity about the oceanic sense than I, but when we visited some of the locations outside Rome where Saint Francis took refuge toward the end of his life, she was profoundly moved, and still has a photo of a cave where he sheltered. Bellini evokes this good man, at one with nature, so that his gesture is echoed repeatedly as we enter the wonderfully deep Italian landscape. Such an approach to spirituality can be found in Chinese brush paintings that place a meditating scholar in the arms of nature; and perhaps landscape itself, as a genre, reminds us of our potential good fortune as inhabitants of a particularly rich planet.
Until recently, I’ve never tried to paint images based on the Bible. A friend, David Smith, who teaches at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, has been trying to get me to do so for almost thirty years. A Rembrandt scholar and practicing Christian, he has argued that biblical stories are the only shared narratives in our culture, even leaving aside that they are, for him, revealed truth. Of course Rembrandt might be as cogent an advocate for belief as Bach, but I always argued back that unless I believed, there would always be something tinny about my efforts. Besides, what would Jesus wear?
Certain tropes are available to the narrative painter regardless of his or her belief system. Having spent forty years in museums and churches, studying the art of my tradition, most of which is Christian, I have a certain familiarity with themes and images from the Bible. We can all relate to the annunciation, where two worlds come face to face, the ineffable and the quotidian. If we tried to paint Koestler’s Rubashov confronting his oceanic sense, the result would, perhaps, be an annunciation. The first time I saw Bellini in Venice something beyond my world was announced. A few years ago I did a twenty-four panel work based on John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, and found myself drawing constantly on Christian imagery, not just because Updike grappled with his faith, but because his religion forthrightly borrowed from previous images and because we, in turn, have been bathed in the blood of the lamb, so to speak [see Plates 9 to 11]. A brilliant painting teacher in graduate school asked us what narratives, what heroes, we all had in common. Apollo? Prometheus? Dionysus? His answer (conspicuously omitting Jesus) was Mickey Mouse. As painters, we lack the shared assumptions that let Donatello, Michelangelo, and Bernini sculpt human forms that transcended the body. Narrative painters strive not only to invent their stories, but to give them something of the gravity, necessity, even inevitability that Bellini achieved in his San Zaccaria sacra conversazione. One could argue that Marvel Comics and James Cameron have seized the mantle of narrative art, that Leonardo da Vinci would be creating digital worlds if he were alive, but I am still a painter, and I find pigment and story inextricably intertwined.
We live part of the year in Key West, and when Hurricane Wilma put sixty percent of the island under water, we had to delay our arrival, as did the annual Fantasy Fest, a somewhat mercenary carnival held near Halloween every year. There is, of course, a long history to carnival, and Mikhail Bakhtin argued that this history is a counterbalance to authority’s hegemony. For centuries, one day would be set aside when all the usual roles were reversed, when a common man would be made king, and when some of the pressures of hierarchy could be spasmodically released. Fantasy Fest is far more cynically commercial than that, with Budweiser and Captain Morgan Rum floats rolling down Duval Street, but people certainly do blow off steam. Revelers dress up, parade, get their bodies painted, grab each other, hug, scream, puke, engage in public sex acts, and even, as happened a few years back, kill each other. For some years now I’ve been more fly on the wall than participant, doing small quick sketches as bases for larger works, but after Wilma struck, it began to seem there were not just carnivalesque aspects to Fantasy Fest, but biblical echoes. People go to some effort to create new personas for themselves, they misbehave in a place that advertises itself as paradise, and they wake up the next morning feeling truly terrible. To top it all off, add a flood.
So I read Genesis, or at least the beginning. I was astonished once again by how quickly God is disillusioned with his creation of humans, and by how severe his punishment is. Our friend Rust Hills, sadly now deceased, used to model for me periodically. With his massive, jowly head and beautiful, abundant silver hair, he seemed perfect as an image of God, and an angry God at that, for he was nobody’s fool when it came to assessing human nature. “Nothing changes for the better,” he was fond of saying, and if he was a curmudgeon, he was a kindly one, hopeful for his fellows, but under few illusions about our record. So I had my God, I could hire two models as Adam and Eve, and I certainly had paradise. The expulsion suggested itself first, for I had already painted a diptych with that title on our first stay in Key West in 1992. On the left, our rented house’s lovely garden in the sun, on the right, the open gate leading to the cemetery across the street at night. It commemorated how it felt to leave after our delightful month in such a beautiful place. Just as any meeting of the worldly and otherworldly can evoke an annunciation, loss itself is foreshadowed in the expulsion. By the time I was done, there were twenty-four 26 by 20-inch oil pastel drawings, collectively titled Old Stories and borrowing from the book itself [see Plates 12 to 15].
In sequence, Rust, as God, is pictured at Mallory Square, as if separating the sky from the sea, then in his house, looking from the dark to a piercing light outside. Accompanied by a reveler dressed as an angel, Rust then calls a somewhat inebriated Adam, dressed in a loincloth, to rise, under a nacreous streetlight. Panel 4 is set outside a well-known local store called Fast Buck Freddie’s, whose window reflects an almost nude Eve as she seems to step from the midriff of her prostrate Adam. She seems to see herself for the first time, her blank face not yet having taken its true form, as down the street Rust argues with a man dressed as the devil. (It turns out that the most popular costumes at Fantasy Fest seem to involve devils and harlots, with pirates and skeletons close behind. These costumed citizens play at devilry or whoredom somewhat less seriously than the allegorical figures in, say, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and while such personifications would normally strain contemporary credibility, in the context of a carnival, anything seems to go.) I had a wonderful model, aptly named Christine, trying out poses as my Eve, while an Englishman named Graham posed as Adam, not on the street, unfortunately, but in what passes for a studio while we’re in Key West.
In subsequent panels, we see the newly created couple name local animals, walk through Old Town arm in arm, then sit under a traveler’s palm that might answer for the tree of knowledge, as a chunky man dressed as a faun walks by, accompanied by a bulldog in a tutu. Dogs sniff each other in the middle distance, as if anticipating the fall. Again, this may strain credulity, but much weirder things are to be seen in Key West, even outside Fantasy Fest.
David Smith tells of a tribe in southern Africa, known for its highly observant and evocative paintings of animals, whose members were reputed to be able to speak to animals in some common language. After Europeans arrived, the story goes, the tribe’s pictures lost their sophistication, and they were no longer able to communicate with other species. This, for David, is our best analogy for the fall, rather than simple sexual initiation, since Adam and Eve happily engaged in guilt-free fornication before the unfortunate business of the apple. Instead, the fall can be seen as the price we pay in exchanging one kind of knowledge for another, trading our connection to nature for Cartesian separation, the body for the mind. While I find this highly appealing, I couldn’t find a way to image such a subtle point, so I opted for the always seductive portrayal of sex, pure and simple. Thus Eve has her prone neck draped with beads by the devil as she sits on a concrete traffic barrier. Adam, Rust, and the angel are unaware of this transaction until, in the next panels, Eve flaunts her sexuality and gets Adam to join her in fairly explicit sex. They’re seen in a dark alley by a female cop, another stand-in for divine retribution.
The expulsion moves Eve and Adam from left to right, from foliage to bare street, their way pointed by the cop. For while almost anything goes at Fantasy Fest, public sex is still frowned upon, even actionable. The disgraced pair shows no remorse; she exhibits her contempt for the authorities, he dangles a huge prosthetic dildo. Repentance and self reproach are in short supply at Fantasy Fest. Dwarfed by the ugly power cables of a dark alley, the couple disappears into the night, then almost vanishes in the dense crowd under the gaze of some misbehaving angels on a balcony.
From here we see Cain and Abel as street brawlers in pirate and fireman garb, respectively; a stop sign casts a shadow reminiscent of Hiroshima’s fat man atomic bomb. We proceed to images of misbehavior that increasingly wear on God’s patience, from obese topless women gorging on hot dogs to girls flashing their breasts in exchange for beads thrown from above. The parade begins with dancers under an unsettling pink light, then we see an ark of sorts being pulled by a jeep, and finally the start of a downpour by Simonton Street’s Marquesa Hotel. This deluge floods the streets, evoking God’s amazing wrath in Genesis: “And behold: I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth…and every living thing that is in the earth shall die.” The cycle ends back at Mallory Square, where we see the sun set over the waters that have presumably drowned the earth. No humans, birds, boats, or signs of life. Stay tuned.
The Old Testament, and Genesis in particular, seem readily available to the artist. After I did this suite of drawings, R. Crumb published his version of Genesis in comic-book form, albeit different from the ones I saw in the chapter house back in 1968. He takes the images head-on, his God being a very pissed off variation on Mr. Natural, but one senses that Crumb shares God’s (and Rust’s) deep disillusionment with the creation. But while few would take offense at seeing Fantasy Fest inebriates as descendants of Adam and Eve, could one do something similar with the New Testament? Is Jesus both so specifically an historical individual and so fervently held as Messiah by such a large percentage of our population that the artist had better steer clear of letting Matthew or John visit what is, after all, a drunken debauch? Only one way to find out. Not that I set out to offend anyone, or test the limits of tolerance, or even thought that more than a few friends and gallery-goers would see what I came up with.
To be my new Christine, I chose a young woman named Delia, demure with blonde hair tightly braided, dressed in a short white frilled skirt and matching tied-off top [see Plates 16 to 20]. I sympathized with her in her trials and travails, and while I wanted to evoke those of Jesus, I realize the difference between an incarnate god and a substance-abusing girl. In a series of twenty-four images, she sits alone on a desert-like beach, has beer dumped on her head at a bar, stands in the rain as if baptized by nature, helps a man dressed as a mummy to stand, rides a wooden donkey in a parade, and stands between transvestites and angry demonstrators carrying crosses. (At every Fantasy Fest, the same few furious men carry signs warning God Hates Fags and You Deserve Hell). She helps a costumed man on crutches, rides a hobbyhorse in the rain at night, eats a hotdog with her friends, who are dressed as a skeleton, a pirate, a nun, and a jester. She sits alone under a streetlight as they ignore her; a friend kisses her while in the foreground an Arab and a crusader face off with swords. She stands alone before a large crowd as the king of Fantasy Fest appears to judge her; crowds of lewd men surround, then engulf her. I’ve always been fascinated by northern Renaissance images of Christ mocked by onlookers. He is sadly elegant; they are bestial, coming up to the picture’s surface like a claustrophobic’s nightmare. Given my tendency to classicize form, this was an enjoyable challenge, one that called on my post-college experience as a caricaturist. After all, caricature was invented by Leonardo da Vinci, who understood that all idealization implied, even necessitated, its opposite. There is certainly no shortage of grotesques at Fantasy Fest. Christine is helped up onto the railing of the Marquesa restaurant by her drunken friends, then stands briefly unsupported and falls into their arms. They carry her home past the cemetery but pass out on the way, waking the next morning after having slept on the above-ground graves necessitated by Key West’s high water table. Her jester friend pokes her in the side, but finally she ends up back on the beach alone, watching someone towed aloft in a parachute towed by a motor boat.
Is this sacrilege? If I were more socially active, I might solicit responses to these forty-eight images of the Old and New Testament, to see whether a nerve, painful or pleasurable, had been touched. I would never base my experiments in religious imagery on the life of Muhammad, partly out of cowardice but primarily because while I was not raised as a Christian, I’m immersed in the assumptions and images of our Judeo-Christian heritage. I’m unable to say whether a fundamentalist Christian would damn me to hell, but my very Christian friend David Smith appreciated both the Old and New Testament cycles. He is also deeply involved with Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque, and believes that Christianity without profound humor is a dangerous misreading of Jesus and his message. Rembrandt is filled with subtle humor and humanity, and certainly sets the gold standard for Protestant image-making. Smith has written on what he considers the Catholic aesthetic, as in Rubens, where every part of the picture is easily accessible from every other, where heaven and earth are in a continuum. A Protestant aesthetic, especially in the drawings of Rembrandt, leaves large gaps between earth and heaven, man and God, so that we can bridge these metaphoric pictorial gaps only through an act of grace. Others have pointed out that while Rubens’s figures are perfectly proportioned, clearly created in a god’s image, be he Apollo or Yahweh, Rembrandt gives his inherently deficient humans short arms and big heads, imperfect souls in need of redemption.
As to whether a nonbeliever will have a tin ear when it comes to religious imagery, I can but do my best. But whether my friend Nick was right, and all religions share a common initial urge, an oceanic sense, they are all practiced by humans. The artists who made sculptures of Christ, Buddha, and Ganesha must have shared some of my emotions and thoughts, or I wouldn’t be having such a powerful response to their work. In all but a few cases we wouldn’t even be able to talk to each other in a shared tongue, but I’m one of those old-fashioned types who believe we can communicate within some inevitable margins of error, and that the effort is possible, even essential. Art historians worry about whether we will ever really understand art of another age or culture, and it’s true that we won’t respond to a Romanesque crucified Christ within the contextual belief system of the man who carved it. But only psychopaths can’t relate to suffering, and Messiah or not, that figure on the cross is suffering horribly. Some viewers will have a sense of the human form that connects fairly directly with whatever the sculptor was up to, a way of hearing the almost musical rhythms of the body. Content and form are inseparable in the best art, and that body, with its mysterious harmonic echo, has an intrinsic emotional energy part and parcel with the power of the intended religious significance.
Are all such reactions ultimately subjective? “Rightness” is an elusive quality. Standing in front of Matisse’s Sailor Boy, a friend once said it could not have been any other way, that one small change would have ruined the whole work. Nonsense, said I, for it struck me as a very loosey-goosey, seat-of-the-pants painting. Quite fine, but hardly as carefully orchestrated as Bellini’s San Zaccaria altarpiece. The sailor boy seemed to me descended from the fellows cavorting in Bellini’s neighboring paintings, a carnivalesque free-for-all that legitimately captures one pole of experience, but has little to do with the crystalline quiet of the sacra conversazione. On seeing a small sprig of leaves as painted by Raphael Sanzio, it struck me that the disposition of the shapes was somehow not only right but perfect. It was as if I were seeing a Platonic ideal, an essential match for some disembodied, otherworldly sprig, and it got me wondering whether mystics see such perfections all around them. Does all of nature have the marvelous internal coherence that Raphael taps into, or does he—and by extension, do we—choose only a felicitous view of an incoherent world? Is the oceanic sense ultimately a function of perspective, of our positioning vis-à-vis the world, or does it have a reality that tolerates and forgives, even encourages, subjective viewing? Does that little intuition of perfection unlock some mystery at the heart of things, or is it basically wishful projection? I don’t know.
I have a problem with the term “nonbeliever.” True, I don’t believe in Jesus Christ as the only son of God, born of a virgin and sent to redeem us, resurrected after three days. Thomas Jefferson, the local hero of Charlottesville, expurgated the miraculous aspects of the New Testament and left teachings I can certainly learn from, relate to, and even, on a very good day, aspire to practice. But surely the word believer needn’t be monopolized by one faith, or by religion itself. I believe in all sorts of things, from my wife to my work, from the power of reason to the necessity for empathy and kindness. I believe art, widely defined, has made the human experiment less ghastly, and I’m proud to be part of any species that has produced Bellini, Brunelleschi, Bach, and Shakespeare. Meanwhile I continue to try to find meaning in the visible and visibility in the oceanic.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.