Rachel Cohen

The Whole Project Scroll


During this period, when we are all in our rooms, and our ways of seeing and learning are virtual, I have been looking through several thousand photos of paintings and drawings that I have taken in museums over the last nine years. Nearly all of these museums are closed to the public right now, and the photos, visual notes, are worlds of color that seem beautiful to me, sometimes substantial, nourishing, vigorous, sometimes ephemeral and poignant, sometimes like memories, at other times, like steady markers for study and imagination.

Our children have a book, called Frederick, by Leo Lionni. It’s about a small gray-brown mouse, who, while other mice are storing up grain for the long winter, spends his days studying colors and memorizing their qualities. When winter comes, and the mice are huddled up and trying to get through the dull, cold days, they ask Frederick to tell of the colors. Looking at my photos, I thought I might try to follow his example.

Frederick Project: In Storage

In the last few months, I've twice gone into the storage facilities of a large museum – once at the Art Institute of Chicago, once at the Knoxville Museum of Art. In storage, you can see what curators and conservators and art handlers know: all the contingencies and arrangements that get cloaked with inevitability once a painting is on a wall. It's my idea that the collection I'm making here could be a kind of storage facility.

It is a special moment, when the door opens to a museum’s storage facility. You had taken the elevator down, walked along a hallway, concrete, underground – the sort of place which, if you’re me, you imagine getting stuck in, and think about whether you have enough water to survive until they realize you’re missing – and then you come to the locked door, and then the door opens.

You’re still in a concrete place, no windows, the light is usually not that good, either dark or fluorescent, but now your mind is entirely turned in a different direction, toward the metal racks, the rows of them. They might be ten feet high or fifteen feet. They are the library shelves of this place. What’s on them is not books, but paintings, watercolors, drawings. And you are to be given time to look at them, almost as you would have been able to do in an artist’s studio, fifty years ago, two hundred years ago.

The person in charge, the kind person who has walked down with you and whose stores these are to protect and care for, grasps a handle and, with a metal creak, the first tall rack slides into the open space. On it, there might be three paintings, or, in a different storage unit, fifteen, odd assortments. Some will be high up, and you can use a ladder. In another, a basement, perhaps they will bring you a conservation light, so that you can really see in the darkness. Whether what you have come to look at is a tiny scrap of chalk drawing or a huge piece of an installation, you are about to concentrate your seeing, all your senses. You are going to move to another state of awareness.

The kind person who has brought you to storage pulls up the wheeled ladder and puts the brakes on it, sets the light, stands back, and you are free to begin.

Frederick Project: Trees

Beauford Delaney Untitlted Watercolor Detail

Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1969. Knoxville Museum of Art. Detail photograph Rachel Cohen.

I just saw it for a minute. It was low down on the storage rack, and I had to crouch down to get to it. My one attempt to photograph the whole of it is clearly angled from above.

Watercolor on paper. Even in this poor photograph, the sense of the colors is not far from the actual. 12 ½ inches high and 9 ½ inches wide. A little larger than an ordinary piece of paper.

The curator at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Stephen Wicks, tells me that it is similar in style and subject to a group of works belonging to the museum that were all done on Beauford Delaney’s last trip home, when he came back from Paris to Knoxville in December 1969 and January 1970. It had been sixteen years since he had been home.

The trees in Knoxville do have a particular look, there is a certain air. The city is in the Smoky Mountains, and the blues are special, and have certain relationships to the greens. Delaney had been working on the relationships of blue, green and yellow for his whole life as a painter, and, especially after he moved into completely abstract painting in Paris in the 1950s, he had done painting after painting of layered blues and greens that gave the impression of looking through a particular window of the rooms he lived in, in Clamart.

To come from the Smoky Mountains, to spend sixteen years in Paris in other blues and greens, and then to return to the blues and greens of childhood. Many thousands were gone. Life had been a very great struggle. He was happy to be with his family. But he didn’t stay long; his life and his painting held together in Paris.

Just look at it.

Just look at the blue filtering down.

At the luminous combinations of yellow and green.

At the calligraphic trees in their hushed arcade.

A little before, in Paris, in 1965, Beauford Delaney had had a show at the Galerie Lambert. There was a catalogue. One of Delaney’s dearest friends – they had been friends for nearly twenty-five years at that point – was the writer James Baldwin. Baldwin wrote the catalogue essay. Here is his description of that window at Clamart:

There was a window in Beauford’s house in Clamart before which we often sat—late at night, early in the morning, at noon. This window looked out on a garden; or, rather, it would have looked out on a garden if it had not been for the leaves and branches of a large tree which pressed directly against the window. Everything one saw from this window, then, was filtered through these leaves. And this window was a kind of universe, moaning and wailing when it rained, light of the morning, and as blue as the blues when the last light of the sun departed.

Well, that life, that light, that miracle, are what I began to see in Beauford’s paintings, and this light began to stretch back for me over all the time we had known each other, and over much more time than that, and this light held the power to illuminate, even to redeem and reconcile and heal. For Beauford’s work leads the inner and the outer eye, directly and inexorably, to a new confrontation with reality.

The photographs I took in Knoxville are their own kind of storage, holding impressions of that watercolor that I didn’t know I was taking. I did not even have a first impression of Knoxville trees against the fluent sky until later that day, getting a ride to the airport, and I did not really guess at the emotional depths of the details until now, much later, looking at the expanded images here on my computer on March 16, 2020, on a day when the city of Chicago is almost silent, when we are all to keep far apart. It is snowing a little, and a small tree in a planter near my window, and the large trees of our backyard and our neighbors’ press, draw flattened dark lines against a dull gray sky.

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Ceacutezanne detail of The Bathers Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Cézanne, The Bathers 1899/1904, Art Institute of Chicago, detail Rachel Cohen

Yesterday, I wrote about Beauford Delaney’s blue, green, and yellow – the way the blue filters down through the trees; the radiant effect of combined green and yellow. Today, I want to pursue blue.

I’ve taught Rebecca Solnit’s essay on blue from her Field Guide to Getting Lost, and I’ve taught Maggie Nelson on blue in her book Bluets. Blue runs through many fields of study – those two writers and many others have traced its threads in landscape, in vision, in philosophy, memory, sorrow, tranquility.

Today I’d like to think about blue as a color of resolve.

My mind skittered for a bit. But it settled on Cézanne. That is a way to talk about blue and resolve. Which Cézanne? The Bay at L’Estaque here at the Art Institute? That unfinished oil I’ve written about that’s at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge? Or the mountain, St. Victoire, that he painted so often. The St. Victoire my mind is most familiar with is the one at the Metropolitan, with that long slow curve of rising brown. Mont Sainte-Victoire, ca. 1902-1906.

Surely I have photos? A kind of desperation to get to them all, photograph them again with their accumulating areas of blue, the blue over blue. Panic of separation. Forty-five minutes of searching through photos, no, it seems I never took pictures of that. How many hours have I stood in front of it. The reproduction is impressive, the Met allows you to focus in on brushstrokes, but it doesn’t seem like my own impression, I feel it effacing my memory. So not that painting. And not the Bay of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque c. 1885 at the Art Institute either.

We were to go to France this spring. I was going to see paintings and talk with curators, go to Aix, and see, for the first time, the bay at Estaque, Mont St. Victoire. Small losses; nevertheless, impediments to understanding; better to acknowledge.

Here’s what I can find today. I did photograph the painting that hangs next to the Bay on the wall at the Art Institute. Here is the museum's photo of the The Bathers 1899 / 1904.

Four photographs.

And perhaps this is not so bad. Because you could look at them all day.

The lines around the figures are of a deep blue, I think it has cobalt in it. Without those lines the figures would dissolve. And blue is also the atmosphere, the air, sky, and water of the painting.

What I want to think about is this. There are two meanings of the word resolve, both from the French resolver. One began in the 14th century. As etymonline has it:

Late 14c., "melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid;" intransitive sense from c. 1400; from Old French resolver or directly from Latin resolvere "to loosen, loose, unyoke, undo; explain; relax; set free; make void, dispel.”

Why is explain with loosen, set free, undo and dispel?

The second meaning came a century later:

From early 15c. as "separate into components," hence the use in optics (1785). Meaning "determine, decide upon" is from 1520s, hence "pass a resolution" (1580s).

Here the sense of determination, the courage and clarity to proceed. This is what I will think about today, and write about again tomorrow – how is Cézanne’s blue holding both of these senses of resolve?

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Frederick Project To Resolve

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants, 1893-94, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photos Rachel Cohen

Today I’m going to work on how Cézanne’s blue resolves.

One sense of resolve is to determine to go forward. Cézanne’s perennial project. Famous for destroying his canvases, for painting them out and scraping them off and beginning again, for going out on the road every day to set up his easel and work again at the view of the bay, the view of the mountain. Speaking to few, often frustrated, lonely.

The resolve took great force of character because it was full of uncertainty. He never was sure. Which points back toward an earlier sense of the word resolve, to melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid. See his acknowledged unsteadiness.

We say that photographs have high resolution when we cannot see the separation of their elemental particles. This could mean that the particles are thoroughly dissolved into the medium, the liquid inks, the electronic fields of color. Highly resolved is when things that have been separate are made continuous.

For Cézanne, blue is a key to resolution. Blue knew how hard he worked and was gracious with him.

The resolution to go forward in uncertain circumstances – a resolution that seems especially necessary to get hold of today – would take its force from a thousand small divergences coordinated into one medium.

This is the incredible property of paint: a liquid medium in which the elements of the world may be dissolved and reconstituted anew.

© 2020 Rachel Cohen