Last year, at the end of a long day of looking at art, I sat down on a bench in a park clearing in the middle of teeming Berlin. Exhausted, I put my head back and looked up for the first time that day. A fracture formed, a tunnel, which turned into a psychic puncture. I saw into the sky, through the clouds, into the upper atmosphere into higher reaches of blue, to where the stratosphere ended and gave way to dead black space. It didn’t stop there. I saw darkness and nothing. I flashed past planets into the deep solar system and into space, further and further, through galaxies and nebulae, to black holes and forever. Probably it was fatigue, but in my body I knew that directly above me, above you, above everyone, not that far away, was all this bigness. I spent the next few days telling people about it. All looked at me like I was mad. I’ve been going to parks, anyplace, out my car window, trying to get the feeling back ever since. To no avail.
Until Wednesday. At the end of a long day of looking at art, I came to a clearing in the middle of the teeming Frieze New York art fair. Exhausted, I sat and looked down for the first time that day. Another kind of tunnel and fracture formed. This one went inward — way inward. As in Berlin, I arrived with my shields down, too tired to project much more than my public hologram. In the course of the next 45 minutes the hull of that hologram broke up and was lowered.
I was at Jonathan Horowitz’s 700 Dots at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. (Our own Dan Duray described the piece aptly yesterday.) I sat down at one of four long tables, each with nine other fairgoers, all of us rapt, painting the same thing: a single black dot eight inches in diameter in the center of a 12-by-12-inch white canvas. I’d assumed that everyone I was seated with was in the art world. On the contrary, one woman described herself as a “housewife with a lot of hobbies,” another was a “Columbia journalism student,” the other was in diamond retail. All were totally into painting. Most of the conversation instantly evolved into the exact thing I always hear artists talking about: shop talk, which brushes are best, how they mixed the paint, tips for smoothing surfaces and rendering edges. In any event, each finished work will become part of one of Horowitz’s 100-part Dot Paintings.
Each of us brings all of our self to art. Or should. Sadly, these days, one of the biggest things people bring to art is cynicism. How can they not, with prices soaring for masterpieces and young artists’s works alike, art making the news through the filters of money, celebrity, and glitz. My definition of the word is: Cynicism thinks it knows things, how things are done, what everything really means, the secrets, lies, and subterfuge behind events. Cynicism is certain, assertive, imperious, and self-centered. I hate it, and I hate it more in the art world, where uncertainty, paradoxes, and doubt are titanic, crucial creative forces. I’ve seen cynicism mutate into bitterness and certitude and destroy artists of every generation.
I thought I’d made an enemy of cynicism. Then I sat down at one of Horowitz’s tables and felt Cynicism’s shadow emerge from me. The directions for painting these dots are simple and specific. The dot is supposed to be in the center of the canvas, solid, without gesture, scraping, lines, or washes; with edges as perfect as possible; and the process is to take no fewer than 30 minutes. But I knew better and gamed the system. (Sigh.) Right away, I dipped my brush into water and in a single quick gesture laid down my circle and scribbled it in. Then I quickly filled the thing in with thick paint. Five minutes later, “Presto, done. That was easy. You can’t play me for a rube.” At that point, one of the many assistants — one of Brown’s directors — kneeled next to me, looked at the painting and earnestly explained that this wasn’t what I was asked to do, pointing out the glutted paint, washes, and edges, and adding that it hadn’t taken 30 minutes. That’s when cynicism spoke. “This is my dot! It’s round, as consistent as I can make it, and it took 18 minutes — which is all the time I have.” I’d lied to someone I know and respect immensely. We went back and forth this way, him patiently trying to coax me into giving this more time. I remained convinced that my way fit the description fine. My dear friend Brown was nearby. I brought him my painting, said I was done, that I was at an art fair and had to keep on keeping on. I handed him the canvas. He inspected it and saw the inconsistencies. We laughed together as he tried to get me to stay and finish it. And then my cynicism spoke again. I said, “Gavin, I love you and Jonathan’s work, but I have to keep moving.” We were both laughing. He took the canvas; he took the top off a nearby garbage can and threw it in. We laughed some more. I left, sure that we’d had a good time.
I walked alone up one of the fair’s big aisles for about five minutes musing about what’d just happened. The sport of it. Then something strange came over me. I went back to Brown’s booth. I asked if I could retrieve my canvas and complete it. They agreed. I sat. Soon, suddenly, Horowitz kneeled down next to me and, very quietly and directly, as we looked each other in the eye, gave me the instructions. It was a very beautiful few minutes. He talked about how it would be a good idea to experiment with different brushes, what kind of brush might be best suited for the edges, how to use the water to clean the paint off the brushes, saying I should “try as hard as you can” and pay extra attention to the edges, and added that when I felt that it was really finished, not to work on it anymore. “You will only make it worse.” All of this resonated. The last part especially. I knew it only too well in my own work.
I resumed painting. Very soon, I knew this dot painting was much harder than my inner cynic thought. Then things got quieter inside me. The noise in the room subsided; my mind switched into another consciousness. That was only the beginning. The difficulty, concentration, care, and inner visual feedback created the tunnel I’d been looking for ever since Berlin. But instead of sensing the bigness of everything else, I felt the bigness of nothing else but me and this activity. This blossomed in an even more uncanny feeling that all of us were part of some human organism doing something that wasn’t about me. Or art. Painting became a way of knowing.
The physicality was sublime, sensual, like nothing I know; the tactility and sound of the brush on the canvas was tangible, as was sensing the densities and viscosity of the paint, my body making something with material that was outside me, that existed in the world, but that was still me and had me embedded within it. I went further into this fracture, away from art-world cynicism about money and fame, thoughts of artists pulling the wool over people’s eyes, far from the Frieze Fair, New York. Way down deep inside me was this knowledge that one could create an entire world this way, simply by making a dot. I’d surrendered to something, however simple, silly, trivial. Things not in the script flowed in.
After a long while of peace, diligent labor, desperation to burrow deeper into this, trying to get what I was thinking onto the surface, I sat back. And felt transformed. Grateful. I don’t think I looked at the painting again. It was finished. I handed in my painting, never looked at where it was hung, didn’t consider which one was mine, didn’t compare. The canvas had become part of all the other canvases. It was wasn’t about me anymore, but a wildness and gravity I never knew before.