The Teacher’s Writings


“L’idiot”, ink on paper, 22″ x 30″

A Cup of Emptiness: Contemporary Abstract Painting

I am nothing; I see all… (Emerson)

As the borders of the ego dissolve there is a higher state of “indifference”. A no-tone, or a single tone (“It rained all afternoon in a single tone” – Garcia Marquez). It is a stripping down of habitual thinking toward a meditative detachment. A detachment that precipitates emptiness both as paradox and as oxymoron: nothing is.

It is the ultimate state of purity: bare, beholding. Seeing clearly for the first time (always the first time, thereafter).

What is emptiness? Emptiness is the jettison of any fixed views that results in awareness of the “empty” or “open” nature of things. Dogen (13thC.) writing On the Nature of Things [Hossho] in the Shobogenzo: “Emptiness means that things in themselves are indefinable; being dependent on relations, things are said to have no individual or absolute nature of their own. It is this nonabsoluteness which is called emptiness.”

The experience of things depends on the mind and are not the supposed things in themselves. Thus the nature of things in themselves is said to be inconceivable, beyond description, or “empty”.

Relative, identityless, not separate from the world of contingencies. It too, is contingently configured. “To experience emptiness is not a descent into an abyss of nothingness nor an ascent into a separate realm. It is a recovery of the freedom to configure (read, freely creative) oneself as an intentional, unimpeded trajectory through the shifting, ambiguous sands of life: it gives us a glimpse of what enables anything to happen at all.” (Stephen Batchelor)

Abstract art gives vision to the emptiness from within.
Only that?
Only that!
Red, blue, black, drip, scrape, brush; white: what do you see?

“A burning to come to whiteness and ascetic innocence” (John Malcolm Brinnin)? “The whiteness that is ultimate intellect” (Wallace Stevens)?

To the painter on the painter’s path the great image has no form.
In short, abstract process painting is no-painting painting.
Think of traditional Chinese painting and how painters treated negative space. Take a look at enso paintings of Japanese Zen masters, try to understand haiku’s “cut-words”; terms like “no-mind” and “no-self”. Similarly, the pregnant pause in music or the plenum that can be found between words and page.
Until in-sight awakens the sleepy eye and pierces the physical fixity of things: paint, paint, paint.
Stop checking everything you do. Finish your homework. Save yourself from suffering:

Buddha says emptiness
Is relinquishing opinions.
Believers in emptiness
Are incurable.
Nargarjuna, 2nd century CE

What is this? What do you see? What do you see?

Among twenty snowy mountains
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Wallace Stevens

The Painter’s Path III: Making Abstract Art in an Age of Artifice – Josh Goldberg


Five Positions of the Essential and Contingent in Contemporary Abstract Painting:

1. The Contingent within the Essential. Looking at the overall composition see all the components of the painting. What hierarchy has developed?
What needs to go and what needs to remain? What is the general tone or feel to the work? How do the particulars function within the general spread of the work? Do the particulars move the work or remain isolated? Is the general sweep of the painting hindered by the “small stuff”?

2. The Essential within the Contingent. Within the hive of busyness of particulars is there a broad movement toward what may be “essential” or absolutely necessary? Can you behold the “essence” of the painting? What is its nature? Where does its heart beat? Is the essential overwhelmed by the contingent, the uncertainty, the minor? Does it all seem too conditional?

3. Arriving within the Essential. Once noted subtraction aesthetics comes into play. This is a pruning process that allows the work to grow or blossom like a flower. It opens up the composition, it allows the eye to be untrammeled. The “trick” is knowing what to sacrifice. Arriving within the essential is the work of editing, thought. It is standing-back and doing what is immediately necessary.

4. Approaching from the Contingent. This is approaching the universe through a grain of sand. How is this happening in the work? Does it occur through editing, cutting out of things extraneous? Or, can one use the contingent (guest) to make the essential (host) look good? How can one make use of spontaneity, the accidental, to stir the broth of essence of the work?

5. Arriving at Concurrence. Concurrence means that the complementary opposites of the essential and the contingent, the general and the particular, those shifting degrees that are dialectic, converge and converse in abstract process painting.

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