In my book The Genius Decision: The Extraordinary and the Postmodern Condition I raise the question: How does one account for those rare and extraordinary works of art that set themselves apart from others? The experience of extraordinary works of art cannot be explained solely in geographical, cultural, or formal terms. In fact, the extraordinary in art cannot be explained at all. The event of the extraordinary in art remains inexplicable – a mystery that is traditionally described by the notion of genius. Even Sigmund Freud, when confronted with Leonardo da Vinci’s “unanalyzable artistic gift,” admitted to the failure of psychoanalysis in explaining artistic creation: “We should be most glad to give an account of the way in which artistic activity derives from the primal instincts of the mind if it were not just here that our capacities fail us.”
What distinguishes the experience of extraordinary works of art from other experiences is that it succeeds in uniting the shared experience of beauty with a noncommunicable personal experience of the sublime – a division that found its most extensive philosophical treatment in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, first published in 1790. Kant distinguished between a communal, pluralistic judgment of taste, the sensus communis aestheticus (which refers exclusively to the beautiful and is characterized by a universal comunicability without mediation of a concept) and a private, individualistic feeling of the sublime. Within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aesthetics a fundamental change had taken place that shifted attention from the beautiful to the sublime, changing an originally populist notion of art into cultural elitism.
This past weekend I spent an afternoon with my friend, the artist Wolfgang Laib in his New York apartment, and while leafing through a book on one of the most extraordinary works of art, the frescoes of the upper church at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, commonly attributed to Giotto, Laib praised a painting by the American artist Brice Marden, currently on view at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, in the gallery’s newest and smallest gallery space at 502 West 22nd Street. The painting, Ru Ware Project, 2007–2012, made up of nine small panels painted in different shades of blue and green, was inspired by an exhibition of Ru (Ju) ware, some of the rarest and finest ancient Chinese ceramics, which Marden encountered on a trip to Taipei in 2007. After returning to New York he began work on the painting based on his memory of the colors of the glazes.
Although Ru ware was used only for a short time, from 1086 to 1106, during the reigns of Emperors Che-tsung and Hui-tsung, its unique glaze, a slightly greenish blue with the slightest hint of rose pink, has been praised for its extraordinary tactile quality and subtle color variations. Its hue has been likened to a sunny sky after rain or the pale blueish-white of moonlight; yet none sufficiently captures the true qualities of qīng (青), the Chinese word for that mysterious, inexpressible blue-green associated with nature itself, which is so perfectly echoed in Ru glazes.
Marden’s Ru Ware Project is a return to the formal language he had developed at Yale where among his fellow students were Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Jennifer Bartlett, Rackstraw Downes, and Robert Mangold. Painted in a range of muted grays with hints of green and blue, they were mostly diptychs or triptychs and built up of many layers of oil paint mixed with wax.
The nine canvases that comprise Ru Ware Project range from a pale brown to an almost robin’s egg blue and are a meditation on color and memory. No single layer or canvas of the nine-part painting can represent this extraordinary quality impressed on Marden’s memory. As Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, there is no exact reproduction of a shade of color: “The fact that we can say ‘This spot in my visual field is grey-green’ does not mean that we know what to call an exact reproduction of this shade of colour.” Marden’s painting is an extraordinary work of art because while it fails to represent the nonrepresentable, the qīng of the Ru glazes, the truth of nature, it fails better (to use Beckett’s famous expression) with every canvas.