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Full Constant Light: Light in NY Is Inspiration for Photographers and Other Artists
New York TImes

Rudy Burckhardt, Metropolitan Museum of Art
A 1939 photograph by Rudy Burckhardt of a man in the street.
Rudy Burckhardt, Metropolitan Museum of Art

A December sunrise over Manhattan invites a meditation on how the sky, river and city combine to create a distinct landscape of colors. Holland Cotter writes: At this dark time of the year, we like light. So we have festivals of light: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve too, with its bright parties, and fireworks, and the fabulous walk-in lantern that is Times Square.
source: Librado Romero/The New York Times

The quality of transparency - letting light through - sounds straightforward enough but isn't. When Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to himself as a "transparent eyeball," he was talking about extreme experiences of cosmic consciousness, and ego loss as destabilizing as it was ecstatic. The poet Anne Porter, the wife of Fairfield, spoke of transparency as desirable but paradoxical, describing poetry and art that "lucidly shows you something that is a mystery."

For the contemporary artist Daniel Joseph Martinez transparency as full disclosure is suspect and potentially subversive. His new sculpture "the west bank is missing, i am not dead, am i," installed in the City University of New York Graduate Center, has, it seems, nothing to hide. In the form of two enormous upright rings, it is made of clear plastic, looks abstract and is fully visible from the street.

The piece is, however, coded. Odd-shaped patterns stamped into the plastic were molded from two architectural models. One was for a suburban development in Irvine, Calif.; the other, inspired by that plan, for an Israeli settlement project on the West Bank. In the United States modern suburban communities have often served to isolate middle-class whites from urban minorities. In Israel, Mr. Martinez suggests, another kind of apartheid is in operation. None of this is immediately evident from the glowing, helix-shaped sculpture. But once understood, its lucidity clouds over. In this case, as so often in politics, transparency means hiding truth in plain sight.

Mr. Martinez is not a romantic when it comes to using light as a symbol; other politically minded artists are. In 1950 the California artist Chesney Bonestell (1888-1986) produced a fantastically melodramatic oil sketch of an apocalyptic scene: New York City ruined and in flames after an atom bomb attack.

The picture, at the New-York Historical Society, was commissioned as a magazine illustration at the height of cold war paranoia. Now, inevitably, it brings 9/11 to mind. But it also carries art historical resonances: the reds and oranges of Bonestell's conflagration are the same used in 19th-century American paintings of sunsets, intended as emblems of a nation under providential care.

Just such a sunset is essential to a Robert Gober installation called "Prison Window" at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in Chelsea, though here the effect is distanced, if not sardonic. There isn't much to the installation, which is basically a piece of stage design consisting of a small barred window set in the gallery wall with a sunset painted on a second wall behind it.

We all know such light and have feelings about it, possibly strong ones: sunset sadness is built into our culture; late-day light is associated with partings, endings, the coming of night, not to mention Hollywood westerns. Is Mr. Gober suggesting we are prisoners of such feelings, locked in by nostalgia - that passive and unprogressive emotion - and by art that promotes it?

Whatever his meaning, there's no question that light is a trigger of memory. And much art, like much poetry, is focused on the past, examining it, revising it or simply evoking it as George Tooker does in his 1952 painting "Garden Party," included in his retrospective at the National Academy Museum.

Mr. Tooker's formally exacting work has taken several directions in the past half-century, alternating political subjects with portraiture and religious painting. In "Garden Party" he is dealing in personal memory, specifically the recollections of summers when he was a child and even more specifically what light was like then: the early evening sky with the moon and one star; the soft flush of Japanese lanterns in the garden. Although the painted scene is highly stylized, the light rings true. It feels like the real, lived-in but long-lost thing, the way it does in the paintings of Aelbert Cuyp and Edward Hicks and Watteau.

Past is past, and if one

remembers what one meant

to do and never did, is

not to have thought to do

enough? Like that gather-

ing of one of each I

planned to gather one

of each kind of clover,

daisy, paintbrush that

grew in that field

the cabin stood in and

study them one afternoon

before they wilted. Past

is past. I salute

that various field.

The poem, about the past remembered and embraced, is by the New York writer James Schuyler (1923-1991), about whose work Fairfield Porter wrote it "tends toward a deceptively simple Chinese visibility, like transparent windows on a complex view."

What is most complex about the view - any view - is the reality of change, every minute, all the time, "like in water a reflection" as Denby puts it in the palooka patois of his sonnets.

The light on the buildings outside the windows changes, the all-night lights of the city, the shadow of clouds on the river, the light through a rose window, the light through a sculpture, the light in Times Square, where one year will soon be seen out, while another, with a sizzle of light, brought in. Change, like light, can be blinding; it can also show the next right way to go.

All we can do about the confusion is what artists do: keep looking and thinking, and making the mind and eye - Denby once more - the shutter of a camera that is open forever.