Western art historians tell two very different stories about the emergence of modern art. One is the story of the triumph of rationality, scientific reason, individualistic self-expression, and freedom from all forms of superstition. The other is an account of artists’ recoil from the materialism, instrumentalism, and dehumanization of the industrialized world. In the first story, abstraction points straight to the reductive reality of Frank Stella’s “What you see is what you see.” In the other, it is a doorway to the realm of spirit, inner truth and heightened consciousness.
Until recently, this second story has received far less attention than the first. But driven, perhaps, by the ever more destructive consequences of our misplaced faith in technology and progress, the spiritual origins of modern art are being more deeply examined. Recuperation of overlooked figures like Hilma af Klint, Agnes Pelton, and František Kupka, as well as revelations about the spiritual explorations of canonical figures like Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich underscore the deep spiritual roots of western abstraction. And a dive into their sources reveals that modernist art was born from the cross fertilization of spiritual ideas from East and West.
As an artist raised in India who has lived and worked for almost forty years in the United States, Anil Revri is an embodiment of this rich transcultural tradition. His geometric abstractions are breathtakingly beautiful drawings and paintings composed of receding lines, checkerboard patterns, nesting rectangles, and metallic dots that draw the eye into complex spaces that seem to exist simultaneously on multiple planes. Each work presents a symmetrical composition ordered around a central point, but beyond that, they display a wide variety of organizational principles. Some are largely flat, some describe a deep perspectival space, while others present optical illusions. There are architectural motifs — suggestions of windows, stages, floors, and vaults. In some works, amorphous cloud-like vapors linger in the far distance. The sparkle of metallic paint and depthless graphite evoke flickering stars in the night sky, while the symmetrical patterns and close bands of marks bring to mind the weave of rugs or textiles. But at the same time these works resist any definitive allusion to the world as we know it. They are finally, themselves, defining spaces that exist only in the eye and mind.
How are we to understand this work? Revri’s geometric abstractions can be appreciated simply for their formal beauty, but this would be to shortchange their power. To the western eye, there are echoes of minimalism — of Sol Lewitt’s grids, for instance, or Agnes Martin’s luminous nets, or the bands of stripes in Frank Stella’s early black paintings. Many evoke the vanishing point of Renaissance perspective and its desire to impose order on the visible world. But there are also echoes of the sacred geometry embodied in Islamic decoration, Buddhist mandalas, and Tantric yantras, those intricate diagrams articulating the structure of the cosmos. However, Revri’s works are neither depictions of observable reality nor illustrations of spiritual ideas. Rather, they are designed to draw the viewer into a meditative space where a sense of one’s unity with the universe becomes palpable.
Revri offers some vivid metaphors to describe his intentions. In one of our conversations he evoked Sufi dancers captured in a moment when one hand is pointing toward the sky and the other toward the ground. Like them, his art becomes a conduit for the energy passing between realms. In another conversation he spoke of the experience of looking out the window of an airplane as it rises from the ever-diminishing landscape below. It passes into a thick fog of clouds and then miraculously bursts into the clear blue sky above. Such moments of enlightenment, liberation, and freedom are what he strives for with his art.
The idea of art as a tool for expanding consciousness is not new, although it has been overshadowed in the West by the idea of art as representation, self-expression, or conceptual play. But the early modernists were spiritual seekers who drew on ideas from philosophies like Theosophy and Anthroposophy that attempted to synthesize Eastern and Western religious experiences into a single system of thought. Piet Mondrian envisioned his paintings as models for the creation of cosmic equilibrium. Hilma af Klint saw herself and her work as conduits for messages from her spirit guides. František Kupka believed his paintings could communicate with viewers through telepathic vibrations. The spiritual conception of art is even more powerful in many non-western traditions. Australian aboriginal sand painters create coded narratives that awaken the spiritual presences embedded in the landscape. Buddhist mandalas provide metaphysical and symbolic maps of the cosmos.
Although he resists identification with any specific dogma, Revri reveals that Tantric visualization techniques employed in his own meditative practice encourage him to access the subconscious mind, thereby allowing him to explore the depths of psychic space. Reciting his mantra, he enters into an intuitive state where the works unfold in an unpremeditated way. He works from the outside in, first delineating the frame that will contain the work and moves toward the center. This follows the path through which he guides his viewers. He notes that each work presents three successive stages. The foreground is the conscious world of the here and now, the middle ground moves into the realm of the subconscious, and the farthest vanishing point is the space of infinity, where the unconscious takes over.
Infinity, in these works, is the place where the ego falls away and is replaced by a sense of unity with the cosmos. The idea of infinity was very important to the early modernists. It suggested a realm beyond the three dimensions of the sensible world. Such ideas reflected developments in mathematics around non-Euclidian geometry and anticipated Einstein’s theories about the existence of a fourth dimension that he called space-time. Infinity also finds expression in Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious with its universal archetypes that reach across cultures and times. Today, such ideas mesh with our own acceptance of the world wide web as a kind of immaterial space that extends indefinitely and expands our experience far beyond the scope of our physical bodies.
For Revri, the tripartite organization of his geometric abstractions reflects a sense of the elasticity of time and space when one is “in the zone” — where the creative impulse takes over. Again, he offers a vivid picture to suggest this experience. “Suppose you are on a wide boulevard under an arch,” he says. “We have been taught that going forward is the future, while where you stand is ground zero, or the present. Behind you is the past. But if you turn around, everything changes. The past becomes the future. It’s all about your perception of reality.”
This description hints at the source of these compositions. Revri sees his geometric abstractions as narratives that take him, and he hopes, his viewers, on a meditative journey into the unconscious. This unconscious is composed of memories and emotions triggered by momentary perceptions and events. The journey toward the infinite is thus also a journey into the psyche. “Infinity is a mirror image,” he remarks.
He sees these works as the natural outcome of his earlier concentration on abstracted landscapes. Those works were his focus for the first twenty years of his career. His landscape paintings are fluid, dreamlike compositions created with thin washes of turpentine and oil. They are translucent and cloudlike, full of forms on the verge of dissolving into the atmosphere. On the surface, they seem the polar opposite of his current preoccupation with symmetry and geometry. But for Revri, the landscapes are about the outside world as an extension of his unconscious. For the last twenty-five years, he has simply reversed direction, turning inward to explore the terrain of memory.
Revri’s geometric abstractions are, as he notes, painted in monastic colors — gold, silver, maroon, black, and white — creating a sense of harmony and peace. They are about the reconciliation of opposites. In the spirit of the Tantric yantra, these works are in communication with a female deity whose energy is nurturing, healing, and creative. They are designed to awaken the feminine spirit that exists within all of us. Revri credits his mother, a classical Indian dancer, as an important influence on his geometric abstractions. He describes the experience of watching her dance — a lone figure on the stage — as not unlike the concentrated energy of the still center that pulls the eye into his works. And he describes how the classical dancer tells a story using only subtle gestures and facial expressions. In a similar way, he translates the narratives of memory into a visual language of lines, dots and colors. Their geometry is designed to take us backward and forward at the same time. “When you see an open window in the work, you have reached the goal,” he says.
An intellectual grasp of concepts surrounding consciousness, spirituality, and metaphysics is not necessary for the perception of these works. Instead, Revri uses art to draw us toward an experience of wholeness and peace. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, his groundbreaking 1902 study of the transcultural nature of religious traditions, William James maintained, “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”1 With these geometric abstractions, Revri encourages us to pull aside the screen and see what lies beyond.
1. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, (Longmans, Green & Co., 1902), 34