It Takes a Little to See a Lot

About five years ago, after the first time I sat in Zen meditation for a prolonged period of time—approximately four hours of sitting and walking meditation—I remember telling somebody that in those four hours, I had experienced every emotion I’d ever felt in my entire life.  Sure, it was an exaggeration, but today, while following a similar meditation schedule, I was reminded just how much actually happens when all one is doing is sitting on a cushion, facing a wall.  What I noticed today, and whenever I meditate, were the kinds of experiences we have every second of every day, but, through habits of attention, we usually aren’t aware of.  They are among the many things in our lives that we kill, diminishing the fullness of what it is to be here, now.

Ryman 2

Robert Ryman, An all white painting measuring 9 1/2 ” x 10″ and signed twice on the left…, 1961; painting; oil on linen canvas, 13 3/4 in. x 13 3/4 in. x 1 1/2 in. (34.93 cm x 34.93 cm x 3.81 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through a gift of Mimi and Peter Haas; © Robert Ryman

It struck me that because I was engaged in such a simple activity, one that was really an inactivity, anything that happened—the sound of the heat turning on and off, a sudden itch, my foot falling asleep, the flicker of a shadow from a bare tree branch trembling in the wind—was monumental.  I was reminded of an exhibition of paintings by minimalist painter Robert Ryman that Todd and I saw at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art quite a few years ago now.  We were in San Francisco visiting a friend and had spent the day wandering through the city, when we stumbled upon the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  They were exhibiting paintings by the San Franciscan artist Jess and Robert Ryman.  I was pleased to have the opportunity to see the exhibits because I’d missed both of them when they’d been at the Walker Art Center earlier that year or the year before.

Upon entering the gallery, I quickly became absorbed in Ryman’s paintings.  Essentially white paintings on white backgrounds, Ryman’s paintings don’t offer much to those who merely give them a glance.  In fact, after studying a handful of them, I looked up to see that Todd had already abandoned Ryman for the Jess exhibition several rooms down because he didn’t understand what there was to look at in white paintings.  But because Ryman works with such a limited palette, he makes visible aspects of painting that can easily get lost yet affect how we perceive art: the texture of the surface that is being painted on, the interplay between the color of that surface and the paint, the quality and nature of the brush strokes, even the different colors of white.  Granted, much of this has been explored in abstract art since its inception.  But because there’s not much else to see, as there often is even in most abstract paintings, what Ryman showed us was magnified, like an audience member’s whisper that fills the sudden silence at the end of a scene of a play, calling everyone’s attention to what most would normally not hear.  And in reflecting on my meditation today and that art exhibit from nearly twenty years ago, I was reminded just how little it takes to see more than we usually allow ourselves.

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