The other thing that triggered my still life
paintings was an exhibition of Chardin's still lifes in New York
at the time I was reading Husserl. There is something profound
about inanimate objects, something I never felt until I tried
to paint them. But artists have been feeling this for a long
time, at least since the time of the Romans, and probably a lot
earlier. The Paleolithic people engraved images of plants and
flowers on their ivory tools.
My work looks nothing like Morandi's, but
his conception of still life was a lot like my own. He said
all he was interested in was expressing what's in nature, in
the visible world. He worked most of his life in a small room
painting the same bottles and boxes on the same surface over
He reminds me of Grisha Perelman, the Russian mathematician
who proved the Poincaré Conjecture. Like Morandi, he was
content to hole up in a small room and obsess on his passion--in
his case the Poincaré, in Morandi's those bottles. Morandi
said, "nothing is more abstract than reality,"
something Perelman might agree with.
And it's interesting
that the Poincaré Conjecture is also about objects. In
topology, or rubber sheet geometry, every object without a hole
through it is the same as a sphere, topologically speaking. A
box, a pyramid, a hexagon--blow them up like a balloon and they're
all spheres. A donut is not a sphere. Neither are we. We have
a hole in us, from our mouths to our butts, so we're all donuts
on this bus. This is true of 2-dimensional surfaces--the surface
of the ball, etc. These are 2-d objects suspended in 3-d space.
In math language:
"For compact 2-dimensional surfaces without boundary, if
every loop can be continuously tightened to a point, then the
surface is topologically homeomorphic to a 2-sphere, usually
just called a sphere. The Poincaré conjecture asserts
that the same is true for 3-dimensional surfaces."
I'll come back to topology at the end, when we look at the Klein
bottle, so let me try to explain to the best of my limited ability
that the surface of a sphere is a 2-d object as seen in our familiar
3-d space. ( I'm just talking here about spatial dimensions,
not space-time.) So a 3-d surface must be "seen", or
embedded in, 4-d space. Don't even try to visualize that because
you can't. We are sensually and therefore conceptually limited
to our 3 dimensions of space and one of time and can only explore
other dimensions through mathematics.
So it took 110 years to prove the Conjecture.
Perelman was awarded the Field's Medal in 2006, but he turned
it down. On 18 March 2010, it was announced that he had met the
criteria to receive the first Clay Millennium Prize Problems
Award of $1,000,000, for resolution of the Poincaré conjecture.
I don't know whether he's going to accept it or not.
Perelman lives with his mother in St. Petersburg. He never cuts
his hair or fingernails. "If they want to grow, why should
I cut them?" He was offered jobs at several top universities
in the US, including Princeton and Stanford, but he rejected
them all and returned to the Steklov Institute in Saint Petersburg
in the summer of 1995 for a research only position. The publicity
was too much for him. I think he felt violated by it--or rather
that the purity of mathematics was violated by it. Maybe he has
the same sort of reverence for objects that Morandi had. The
last I heard, Grisha doesn't answer his email and says he has
stopped doing mathematics. I doubt it.
Morandi was also
single and lived in a house in Bologna with his mother and three
sisters. He lived and worked in a small room with one window,
a few tables and chairs and a camp bed. That was all he needed.
He painted the actual bottles and boxes themselves. Maybe to
make them anonymous, to neutralize them, remove any stories there
might be attached to them, contaminating them.
Even when he gained
international recognition like Perelman, he turned down all invitations
to exhibit his work and never had a large show until after his
death. He valued his privacy, kept his teaching jobs to a minimum
and concentrated on those bottles and the view from his one window.
He can be thought of as the first minimalist.
When I do this as a Powerpoint presentation I play Satie's Gnossiene
No. 1 while I show Morandi's still lifes. Satie was a minimalist
too--or at least his music would influence the minimalists of
our own time, like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams.
Eric Satie, Gnossiene No. 1
And he too ended up as a recluse. At the time
of his death in 1925 absolutely nobody else had ever entered
his room in Arcueil (a suburb of Paris) since he had moved there
twenty-seven years earlier.
Like Perelman, he wore the same suit every day, year after year.
After Satie's burial his friends discovered four pianos stacked
up on top of each other, a lot of unused umbrellas (he was apparently
a hoarder), a lot of dust and cobwebs -- which showed that he
never used the piano to compose -- his old love letters, and
compositions he hadn't bothered to publish, stuffed behind the
piano or in the pockets of his clothes.
Talking about his symphonic drama Socrate, Satie said
he tried to create a work "as white and pure as antiquity."
Of course antiquity was neither white nor pure--the Greeks painted
their sculpture--but the ruins of it were. His music (unlike
his studio) is like bleached stone.
And Morandi's still lifes also have that quality of anonymous
ruins, pure and white. So I thought Satie's music was the perfect
soundtrack for Morandi's work.
So none of these guys --
the painter, the mathematician or the composer -- are interested
in the transcendent qualities of their workneither the
metaphysical nor the practical values, its place in history,
the political implications, the money, etc. It was pure mathematics,
pure painting, pure music. It was all existential and phenomenological. Or
so they thought.
Morandi said, The
only interest the visible world awakens in me concerns space,
light, colour and forms. He rejected any notion of a narrative
attached to his images, as a pure mathematician rejects any notion
of practical applications from his work. And Satie referred
to himself as a "phonometrician" (meaning "someone
who measures sounds") rather than a musician. But--
-- and this is my point --
its always a mistake to rely on what artists tell you about
their work. As you can see Morandi is giving us much more than
space, color and form, and Satie is not just measuring sounds. In
the case of my own still lifes, the upshot was that everybody
but me saw narratives in the work! In fact Ive been told
by more than one viewer that some of my still lifes are my most
intimate self portraits. And from behind the stone mask
of Stravinsky's Oedipus rex comes all the passion of a
Verdi opera. In the same way, Morandi is not showing us the
visible world. Hes showing us himself. And I think
something similar could be said about Perelman's mathematical
So its not only when youre in the trance
of creativity that you lose yourself: Even in your own conception
of the work you are deceived! The imagesor equations, words,
whatevercome back though the membrane like living things
that are not ones self. They are completely devoid of ego.
Only in retrospect do you realize its you after all.