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What a Painter Taught Me

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In 2011 I was invited by Demetrio Paparoni, my former editor at the Italian art journal tema celeste, to write a catalogue essay about Francesco Polenghi, an artist whom I had never met (Francesco Polenghi, Skira, 2011).

Polenghi lived in Milan. Such assignments, which provide a welcome opportunity for travel, are always demanding. They entail entering an unfamiliar studio, looking at the artwork, listening to the artist discuss it, taking mental notes, and then writing about the art. Often it’s revealing to see what is on display: books, reproductions of Old Master or other artworks. 

It is the critic’s job to contextualize the works, to define their place in art history and identify their distinctive values. Writing about well-known artists or artworks brings clichés to mind too easily. Responding to artists who haven’t been written about much is a marvelous challenge, for sometimes it demands rethinking the fundamentals of art criticism.

The art critic is always split between a critical self, who watches and often censors reactions, and a  receptive self, whose response to the art is unhampered by intellectual reflection. That double awareness is essential, for it opens up a space that makes dispassionate aesthetic discourse possible.

Francesco Polenghi, “K 33” (2006), oil on canvas, 100 by 100 cm

I cannot recall in detail what Polenghi said to me. Not a lot, I think. We didn’t look at a large number of paintings. He explained his working procedures, told me how living in India from 1981 to ’88 had inspired him, and showed me some recent paintings. I remember seeing a large photograph of his Buddhism guru in India. We went out for lunch and then came back to the studio. By this time I had realized that he was a truly wonderful painter, and I was happy to have the opportunity to write about him. I felt at ease among his paintings, but wasn’t yet sure what I could say about them. 

Then, near the end of  my visit, to my total surprise, my critical self relaxed. I felt taken out of myself and totally at peace, as if all of my critical faculties had ceased to function. I felt exalted. Or should I say, Polenghi’s art made me feel exalted. 

I was unsure how to describe this experience. Immediately after that moment passed, I became embarrassed, skeptical of my own feelings. What do you do when your own mind acts in an unexpected way? I was tempted to dismissively chalk up this response to being jet-lagged. Coming from a secular perspective, it seems strange to speak, in almost mystical terms, of being taken out of oneself. 

Polenghi gave me a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s Buddhism-inspired self-improvement book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Penguin: London, 2005). Suspicious as my critical self was, one passage spoke to me:

Only the first awakening, the first glimpse of consciousness without thought, happens by grace, without any doing on your part. If you find this book incomprehensible or meaningless, it has not yet happened to you. If something within you responds to it, however, if you somehow recognize the truth in it, it means the process of awakening has begun.

Francesco Polenghi, “K 60” (2005), oil on canvas, 156 x 156 cm

In the 1960s, Polenghi, who was born in Milan, Italy, in 1936, studied at New York University,  where he earned an economics degree. He became a full-time abstract painter in the 1980s, after living in India for seven years. The works I saw that day in his studio were composed of large fields of marks that range, as Barry Schwabsky says in his eloquent essay in the same catalogue: 

[…] from single linear signs, ever so slightly curved, yet really nearly as straight as the hand unsteadied by a ruler could make them, to whirls and eddies of the most intricate sort, some of which call to mind Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of deluges — not a far-fetched reference point for a Milanese artist, after all.

They may be painted in maroon, dark purple, black, red, or another color, applied on a white ground. In the catalogue there’s a photograph of Polenghi at work. I never witnessed him painting, but I imagine that making the innumerable clusters, loops, and whorls would make it into a slow-moving process.  

Long before I met Polenghi, I had an unforgettable encounter with a great Buddhist painting,  “Parinirvana of Sakyamuni,” a late-17th-century work by the Japanese artist and poet Hanabusa Itchō, at the Minneapolis Museum of Art. It shows the death of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Having delivered his final teachings, surrounded by his followers, he’s about to enter nirvana. The elephant, the rabbit, even the snake grieve the loss of this great teacher. Clearly “Parinirvana of Sakyamuni” depicts a sacred spiritual scene.

Francesco Polenghi, “K 54” (2009), oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm

Polenghi’s Buddhist studies in India inspired him to make very different paintings. The argument that abstract painting can have spiritual or religious significance has often been made. Yet the work of such diverse artists as Hilma af Klint, Piet Mondrian, and Mark Rothko still fits comfortably into a secular modernist paradigm. The catalogue essays by Schwabsky, as well as one by Paparoni,  indicate that the same is true of Polenghi’s marvelous works. However much he was inspired by his study of Buddhist rituals, his paintings belong to an essentially secular, Euro-American modernist tradition of abstract painting. 

What at present strikes my critical self, looking at reproductions of Polenghi’s paintings in the catalogue, is the enormous gap between my analysis of the works in my essay and my powerful response to them in his studio. It’s easy to understand  how “Parinirvana of Sakyamuni” inspires powerful feelings about mortality, given its subject. But what was it about Polenghi’s large fields of swirling marks that caused my intense reaction? I still cannot answer that question. 

I thought about this studio visit a few days ago when, to my immense sorrow, I learned of Polenghi’s death from the coronavirus. I realized that he gave me a great gift, which I still retain. He taught me the importance of the receptive self. Any art writer needs a critical self. But without  also cultivating a receptive self, it’s impossible to understand why visual art matters.

I’m  a slow learner — with a lot still to learn. 

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