Faith and Liberation Through Abstraction: Anil Revri's Paintings
Donald B. Kuspit, 2010
Art critic, historian, and professor emeritus, State University of New York at Stony Brook
…the eternal repetition of the fundamental rhythm of the cosmos: its periodic destruction and re-creation. From this cycle without beginning or end, man can wrest himself only by an act of spiritual freedom…all Indian soteriological solutions can be reduced to preliminary liberation from the cosmic illusion and to spiritual freedom.
Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History.1
And in our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history…if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning?
Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History.2
…our view of the world is based on the interaction of two spatial systems. One of these systems may be called cosmic, the other parochial.
Cosmically we find that matter organizes around centers, which are often marked by a dominant mass. In the vastness of astronomical space the rotating galaxies and the smaller solar or planetary systems are free to create such centric patterns, and in the microscopic realm so are the atoms with their electrons circling around a nucleus. Even in the crowded world of our direct experience, inorganic and organic matter occasionally has enough freedom to follow its inclination and form symmetrical structures — flowers, snowflakes, floating and flying creatures, mammalian bodies — shaped around a central point, a central axis, or at least a central plane. The human mind also invents centric shapes, and our bodies perform centric dances unless this basic tendency is modified by particular impulses and attractions….
But that is not the world we see when it surrounds us. In the parochial view of its small inhabitants, the curvature of the earth straightens into a plane surface, and the converging radii become parallels….It is a view that has an order of its own, the simplest and most perfect order the mind could seek. Parallelism and right-angled relation yield the most convenient framework available for spatial organization, and we cannot be grateful enough for living in a world that, for practical purposes, can be laid out along a grid of vertical and horizontals….
The Cartesian grid is the second of the two spatial systems…. It is helpful not only for mathematical calculation but for visual orientation as well.
With all its virtues, the framework of vertical and horizontals has one grave defect. It has no center, and therefore it has no way of defining any particular location.
Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center 3
Again and again one sees the grid in Anil Revri’s paintings, whether as a dominating, virtually “totalizing,” over-all structure, as in the Veiled Doorwaysseries, 1996-2000, or, in many of the paintings in the three Cultural Crossings Suites, 1998-2001, as the center of the space. In the Geometric Abstractions, 1996-2005, the grid is simultaneously central and over-all. Everything points towards it and it encompasses everything. That series is all the more remarkable — perceptually noteworthy — because of its use of gestural elements (or, as Anton Ehrenzweig calls them, “non-gestalt” impulses). Seemingly drifting aimlessly across the surface like vaporous clouds, they in fact are organized around the center, and lead our eye into it the same way orthogonal lines lead our eye into distant space. They too are part of the grid, reminding us that perspective is built into its gestalt, complicating its simple geometry. Simultaneously a flat grid and a perspective construction — a one-dimensional parochial space and a multidimensional cosmic space seamlessly integrated (the multidimensional perspectival space seems to lie both within and beyond the one-dimensional grid space, that is, to be immanent within yet transcendent of it, suggesting inner transcendence of the outer world) — Revri’s abstractions are conceptual and perceptual paradoxes. It is easy to go through the veiled doorways and cultural crossing windows — they are both passageways, openings into the unknown, as it were — but hard to come back out, not only because one is lost in one’s own inner space, but because it is continuous with and indistinguishable from outer space. The two systems of space are implicated in each other in Revri’s abstractions, so much so that they not only seem inseparable, but different facets of the same unfathomable space.
The elusive, atmospheric, fragile nature of the peculiarly expressionistic, apparently spontaneously generated gestures also reminds us that the grid is constructed of peculiarly immaterial material — lines, light, shadow, and often delicate color. It is composed of nuances, as it were, and thus has as much unconscious as cognitive appeal, and sensuously vibrates however geometrically static. There is something peculiarly seductive about the grid, for all its precision — its mathematical aloofness, one might say. The “mystifying” device of the free-floating gesture makes an early appearance in Veiled Doorways 9, 2000. There, too, the grid holds its own — remains stable and intact, and with that emblematic of pure consciousness — as though in defiance of the unstable gestures that seem to threaten it with their obscurity. The grid eternally abides despite the presence of the transient gestures, signs of a clouded consciousness. Initially experienced as blemishes on the grid’s perfect geometry and the smooth skin of the painting, they in fact highlight its perfection and Revri’s perfectionism: the flawlessness of his execution, adding to the dialectical eloquence of his grid, simultaneously flat and in deep perspective. The grid retains its paradoxical integrity despite the free-floating, formless, non-gestalt details, adding another dialectical touch to it with their ironic imperfection.
In all these works there is a kind of repetitive rigor, even when the grid seems to dissolve into chaos, as in the Even in the Quietest Moments series, begun in 2000 and ongoing. Straight lines become curves, the Cartesian coordinates collapse, that is, horizontals and verticals disappear, making for a more consummate all-overness and flatness. But the curves are rhythmically entangled in each other, indeed, ingeniously merge, suggesting a kind of ornamental patterning, and implying a musical gestalt. Influenced by the rhythmic chanting of the Gayatri mantra, as he acknowledges, Revri offers a new model for so-called musical painting. The idea of abstract painting as visual music, initiated by Kandinsky — influenced by Wagner’s operatic music, with its use of unresolved chords and leitmotifs, and later by Schoenberg’s atonal music, with its dissonances, he endorsed Walter Pater’s famous idea that all art aspires to the condition of music 4 (abstract art modernizes visual art by rejecting the traditional idea that it must emulate verbal art) — takes a timely new revitalizing turn with Revri’s abstract paintings. Revi’s “referencing” traditional Indian music rather than modern Western music breathes new spiritual life — new Geistigkeit or mindfulness, to refer to Kandinsky’s Über das Geistige in der Kunst, the Bible of pure abstraction or non-objective (and non-literary) visual art — into abstract art, which as many artists and art historians have argued, has become tired, old, and impotent, not to say decadent (certainly no longer “avant-garde”), its possibilities exhausted after a hundred years of exciting development. But Revri’s Tantric abstractions show that it still has creative momentum, and restore the aspirational import and spiritual conviction it once had.
Abstract art must look to the East if it is to have a future, however much it arose in the West, all the more so because the West is losing its cultural credibility, along with its socio-economic power, to the East, and with that becoming past history. There is a serious need for a truly international — not just Euro-American — and with that truly universal abstraction, and Revri’s abstraction answers the need, all the more so because it is grounded in archetypal rhythms and structures — the music of the spheres, one might say — rather than avant-garde novelty. Revri is not pursuing the shock of the new, which is invariably momentary and quickly passing whatever its art historical significance — abstraction has become comfortably art historical and habitual, as it were, which is why it is no longer as shocking and controversial as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century — but what Mircea Eliade calls timeless archetypes or primordial paradigms, which have transhistorical significance. Revri ritually articulates them, recovering their significance in a creative act of epiphanic recognition, and, one might say, meditative worship, for they have a certain sacred significance, as the timelessly real always does.
The grid has become a staple of abstraction, acquiring positive, transcendental significance with Mondrian’s abstract paintings, which elevated it into an icon, conferring spiritual significance on it. It became a sacred presence — a sort of stand-in for divinity, and emblematic of the cosmic order that manifests, expresses, and symbolizes it. The turn away from the outward to the inward was decisive for Mondrian. Without it abstraction is mere formalism — idle if ingenious play with what Clement Greenberg called the “formal factors” of visual art, making for some exciting if empty perceptual moments, aesthetically unfulfilling because they have no inner content. In words that have become gospel, Mondrian declared: “When we show things in their outwardness (as they ordinarily appear), then indeed we allow the human, the individual to manifest itself. But when we plastically express the inward (through the plastic form of the outward), then we come closer to manifesting the spiritual, therefore the divine, the universal.”5 Mondrian’s idea that there is a “higher intuition” seems convincing, but the nature of what he variously called the spiritual, the divine, the universal is unclear, but it seems clear that he associated it with Christianity, as his early use of the church façade — Revri’s doorways and windows certainly have an affinity with it — suggests. (Mondrian’s first work was in fact for a church in Amsterdam.) The Church at Domburgseries, 1910-11, emphasizing the stripped down look of the Protestant church, clearly suggests the puritanical, even ascetic character of Mondrian’s abstraction, ambiguously self-repressive and determined to liberate the self from worldly indulgences. His acknowledged pursuit of purity is at once a rejection of Catholicism, with its use of natural, worldly — and so for Mondrian impure — appearances to suggest a realm of supernatural spiritual reality.
If Kandinsky’s expressionistic — “instinctive” — apocalyptic landscapes, as Wieland Schmied calls his “breakthrough” abstract paintings, are imbued with the unrestrained colorfulness of Russian Orthodox churches (as Kandinsky acknowledged), then Mondrian’s geometrical grid paintings, with their restricted use of color — pure primary colors — and cunning simplicity, evident in their asymmetrical arrangement of horizontals and verticals, convey Protestant sobriety (even Calvinist efficiency, as some interpreters have argued). Both use abstraction to dramatize their inner self — reveal their inner necessity, as Kandinsky called it — but the selves they dramatize differ as much as their gestural abstraction and geometrical abstraction. Nonetheless, these pioneers of abstraction saw abstraction in a positive — spiritual — light, which is why they regarded it as profounder and riskier — and more dialectically ambitious, not to say adventurous — than representational art. For it struggled to represent what is inherently unrepresentable, even as it cries out to be represented. And to liberate — separate — the self from the world, suggesting a certain disillusionment with it, and inability to cope with it, as Wilhelm Worringer thought: both sought refuge in abstraction to survive, indeed, to maintain a sanity in an insane world, even as the contradictory elements that informed their art, and which remained unresolved (thus Mondrian’s tense asymmetry and what Kandinsky called his “dissonance”), revealed, in schematic form, the basic dynamics of that insanity.
Spiritual disillusionment with the world leads to the spiritual illusion of transcendence. For Kandinsky and Mondrian transcendence was more of a hope and an ideal than a reality, however much they thought they achieved and experienced it through their art. It was what Gilbert Rose calls a necessary illusion — an illusion that was emotionally necessary but objectively absurd. It emerged in the course of their rebellion against what they experienced as spiritually stultifying — blindly materialistic — society. But Revri shows that transcendence is not a wishful artifact of social misery, but involves intuitive identification with archetypal reality, and with that experience of the overarching symmetry, harmony, and calmness of the cosmos. Such an experience is never quite conveyed by the abstractions of Kandinsky and Mondrian; they remain peculiarly disjointed, unsettled, incoherent — charged with conflict, for all their so-called equilibration of opposites. The conflict between the grid, perspective, and gesture is artfully resolved by Revri — they align and integrate in a comprehensive abstraction — and with that the blindness of materialism is replaced by a vision of the archetypally given, and confident transcendence effected. “The peace that surpasseth understanding” is realized.
But this positive view of transcendence, and the conviction that it could be achieved through pure abstraction, evident in Kandinsky and Mondrian — despite all the anxiety and uncertainty they projected into it--did not last, as Arnheim makes clear. Both gestural and geometrical abstraction became entropic — de-spiritualized — and thus negative in import. I will argue that Revri’s Tantric abstraction — abstraction grounded in Indian rather than European spirituality — reverses this entropy, making for a new anabolic abstraction, conveying a post-religious idea of spirituality, that is, separating cosmic spirituality from parochial religion. This is the subliminal point of Revri’s Cultural Crossing Suites, with their different sacred texts from different traditional religions —Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. The texts are presented in the same format, in effect reconciling them. The “pages” are sacred spaces in which the same invisible divinity becomes visible in different verbal forms. Revri’s introduction of sacred texts into the abstract space of the atmospheric grid is a unique innovation. Not only does it restore abstraction to spiritual credibility — hammer home the view that if it does not have spiritual meaning it is meaningless however formally “interesting” it may be — but shows that abstraction can be as creatively daring and spiritually exciting as it was in its heyday. Indeed, the gestural letters (each in effect a module, however different in form) and the geometrical page are inseparable — in contrast the gestures and grid in the Geometric Abstractions look separate and distinct — overcoming the split consciousness of the sacred that unwittingly subverted transcendental abstraction from the start. Establishing a higher order of abstraction, Revri saves abstraction from itself, and reconceives its spirituality: in his art it is no longer a failed attempt to awaken from “the nightmare of history,” as James Joyce called it, and thus a failed spirituality — failed because it does not liberate the self from the pathological conflicts of history, which remain alive in the formal conflicts of Kandinsky’s and Mondrian’s art — but to articulate a transhistorical state of mind, that is, a conflict-free state of mind, a state of mind that not only rises above conflict but experiences it as illusion.
The entropic collapse of abstraction that its conflicted consciousness eventuates in is brilliantly described by Arnheim: “the increase of entropy is due to two quite different orders of effect; on the one hand, a striving toward simplicity, which will promote orderliness and the lowering of the level of order, and on the other hand disorderly destruction.”6The former leads to “the emptiness of homogeneity,” exemplified by the seriality of the grid, an “eternal return” — compulsive repetition? — of the module, a sort of reduction of everything that exists to the same anonymous, empty, undifferentiated (uni-)form, and with that the total serialization of the cosmos, that is, its reduction to a homogeneous grid. Mondrian’s grid barely succeeds in avoiding this entropic fate. The latter leads to the “disintegration” of “organized structure…either by corrosion and friction or by the mere incapacity to hold together.” Kandinsky’s pre-World War I abstractions — especially what he called his improvisations — attack the organized structure of representational art; they are apocalyptic — disintegrative —in more ways than one. The gestural fragments — momento mori, as it were — that are ruins of representation barely hold together, even when, in his post-World War I abstractions, Kandinsky reifies them geometrically. In their different ways, Kandinsky and Mondrian devolve the highly evolved coherence of traditional representational art, leaving us with so-called “eccentric abstraction,” a failed attempt to raise the level of order — as though to suggest that a precarious unstable order was better than none — hinting at an underlying disorderliness.
Disintegration and excessive tension reduction must be attributed to the absence or impotence of articulate structure. It is a pathological condition, on whose causes I can hardly speculate here. Are we dealing with the sort of exhaustion of vital energy that prophets and poets proclaimed and decried in the last century? Is the modern world socially, cognitively, perceptually devoid of the kind of high order needed to generate similarly organized form in the minds of artists? Or is the order of our world so pernicious as to prevent the artist from responding to it? Whatever the causes, these products [modern works of art], although often substandard artistically, reveal strong positive objectives: an almost desperate need to wrest order from a chaotic environment, even at the most elementary level; and the frank exhibition of bankruptcy and sterility wrought by that same environment.7
One of the things that makes Revri’s abstractions unique — a major development in the history of abstraction — is that they articulate, with confident vision, the high order of abstraction — the exquisitely differentiated yet seamlessly unified structure — modern abstract art lacked from the start. It was perhaps incomprehensible to Mondrian and Kandinsky, but they yearned for it even though they never realized it: it was always beyond them, however much it unconsciously beckoned. Revri’s abstractions look like modern abstractions at first glance — their use of the grid and gesture suggest that they are modern — but their sublime coherence is trans-modern, indeed, an archetypal emblem of eternal order.
It is what Eliade calls a sacred space — “an absolute reality” — made manifest in an artistic hierophany.8“The hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center” — a consecrated center, as it were, for it is the abstract place where the sacred abides, and sometimes appears in the form of sacred texts or symbolic architecture, both evident in Revri’s Cultural Crossings Suites. Indeed, Revri’s grid is what Eliade calls a “cosmological structure,” that is, a geometrical cathedral and abstract temple, “hence holy place above all others.”9It is the abstract space of spiritual freedom, where one becomes liberated from “the fundamental rhythm of the cosmos: its periodic destruction and re-creation,” to refer to the first epigraph, even as its repetitive rhythm ironically evokes that rhythm. But the rhythm of Revri’s sacred space, however complex, is orderly, with traces of destruction and disorder — the vaporous gestures — reduced to a minimum and put in cosmological perspective, as noted earlier, and thus given a place in the eternal transhistorical order. Given structural significance, the vaporous gestures — ghostly traces of the gods, hinting at their presence, reminding us that they haunt a temple? — become a sort of sacred atmosphere, purifying the space like smoke from a censer. What Roger Fry calls cosmic feeling, which he thought was aroused by the best art, pervades Revri’s abstractions, confirming their aspirational character.
It seems possible to argue that Revri returns abstraction to the theosophical roots it had in Kandinsky and Mondrian, but it makes more sense to see his abstraction in the light of Tantrism, an acknowledged influence on him. Tantrism, Heinrich Zimmer writes, “continues the orthodox Vedic line…that the ‘One is both at once….All beings are members of a single holy family, proceeding from the one and only divine substance. And this view involves…on the one hand a devaluation of the peculiarly personal nuances of individuality, but on the other hand a bold affirmation of all that may ever come to be.”10Are the modules the members of a single holy family, devoid of “personal nuances of individuality,” but made one in the grid, as though to confirm the fact that they are in fact one and the same impersonal module repeated ad infinitum?
Not exactly; the rich, jewel-like surface and sensual colors of the Geometric Abstractions— the dots look like inlaid jewels and the atmosphere is peculiarly lush — suggest something more is at stake than purity in Revri’s abstractions. Or rather that transcendental purity — what Zimmer calls the “ecstatic, egoless, beatific bliss in the realization of transcendent identity”11 — is paradoxically achieved through passionate desire. “There is a peculiar and essential trait of the Tantric Yea which distinguishes it from the earlier philosophies,” that is, the orthodox Indian religions. “The ideal of Tantrism is to achieve illumination precisely by means of those very objects which the earlier sages sought to banish from their consciousness….Hence the candidate for [Tantric] wisdom does not seek a detour by which to circumvent the sphere of the passions….Quite the contrary: the Tantric hero goes directly through the sphere of greatest danger…The creature of passion has only to wash away his sense of ego, and then the same act that formerly was an obstruction becomes the tide that bears him to the realization of the absolute as bliss.” Thus, Zimmer adds, “sex, in Tantrism, has a high symbolic role.” “It requires a hero to confront and assimilated, in perfect equanimity, the whole wonder of the World Creatrix — to make love, without hysterical reactions, to the Life-force, which is the sakti of his own entirety.” Revri’s Tantric Chakras, 1977-80 and Freud/Jung series, 1975-80 — all drawings — make the symbolic importance of sex and the World Creatix — sex with a woman who is the symbol of the World Creatrix, an embodiment of destruction and creation — in Tantrism transparently clear.
So where is the sex — the passion — in Revri’s abstractions, suggesting that they are not unequivocally pure however transcendent their geometry? Slowly but surely, in a number of line drawings and sketches made during the same early period as the Tantric Chakrasand Freud/Jung series, naked female figures, and sometimes male and female figures engaged in sexual activity, are transformed into abstract configurations. They become peculiarly bodiless — streamlined abstractions (abstract fantasies, as it were) — however sometimes dense with dark lines, which give them mass and volume, creating an illusion of bodiliness. The figures are in effect purified by being rendered abstractly, suggesting a certain detachment from them and their sexuality, however much both are acknowledged as facts of life. The leap to the cosmological structures of the “new millennium” work, as it can be called, is anticipated in the series of Untitled Landscapes that Revri painted from ca. 1975 through 1995. The romantic richness of these landscapes becomes the erotic subtext of the Tantric abstractions. Their rhythms, colors, and atmosphere are imbued with desire. The transcendental geometry is suspended in it and couldn’t live without it. The signs of desire, abstracted into pure forms, are handled with the same dispassionate intensity as the geometrical structure, which is why they are just as blissful, enlightening, cosmic, and complicated. It is faith that intervenes in history, Eliade writes, and Revri has faith in the transhistorical —transcendental — meaning and liberating power of desire. Its rhythm is not an illusion, but cosmically structured, which is why it is the foundation and substance of Revri’s cosmological structure.
In sum, Revri’s abstractions heal the wound Kandinsky and Mondrian unwittingly inflicted on abstraction by dividing it into irrational gestural and rational geometrical parts. They thus symbolize what T. S. Eliot famously called the dissociation of sensibility, that is, the separation of irrational passion and cognitive reason, setting them in seemingly perpetual conflict. Eliot regarded the dissociation of sensibility as the disease of modernity, and the sign of mental disease in general, suggesting that Kandinsky’s violently irrational and Mondrian’s ingeniously rational abstractions are peculiarly diseased, and as such spiritually defective. In contrast, Revri’s abstractions are spiritually effective, for they eloquently synthesize passionate feeling and geometrical reasoning, a marriage made in artistic heaven that brings with it a sensation of blissful transcendence, which is what we experience when we become fully conscious of Revri’s intense abstractions. His Tantric abstractions show the paradoxical way to mental health.
1. Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 115
2. Ibid., 151
3. Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1982), vii-viii
4. Walter Pater, “The School of Giorgione,” The Renaissance (New York: Modern Library, n.d. , 114 famously asserted: “It is the art of music which most completely realises this artistic ideal, this perfect identification of matter and form. In its consummate moments, the end is not distinct from the means, the form from the matter, the subject from the expression; they inhere in and completely saturate each other; and to it, therefore, to the condition of its perfect moments, all the arts may be supposed constantly to tend and aspire. In music, then, rather than in poetry, is to be found the true type or measure of perfected art.”
5. Quoted in Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, eds., The New Art — The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986), 15
6. Rudolf Arnheim, Entropy and Art: An Essay on Order and Disorder (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1971), 52AN
7. Ibid., 55
8. See Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1959), for a discussion of sacred space and cosmic religion.
9. Ibid., 59
10. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (New York: Pantheon, 1951), 575. All subsequent quotations from Zimmer are from this book.