There is something in the Montana winter light which conjures up the ice floes of Frankenstein’s escape, or Hurley’s photos of Shackleton’s doomed expedition, or Caspar David Friedrich’s 1824 painting Sea of Ice, where rime clads the shrouds and masts of the HMS Griper, one of Admiral Parry’s ships lost in his 1924 North Pole expedition. The painting was originally called A Wrecked Ship off the Coast of Greenland in the Moonlight. Ice sheets push up like tectonic plates colliding around the central focus of the masts, creating a ghost ship out of spikes of frost, much as rays of phosphorus splinter off a Fourth of July sparkler.

More familiar are Frank Hurley’s 1914 photos of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, breaking apart in the Antarctic ice, its rigging a web of misdirection. 1914 was the year when the world fell apart, and World War I proved that civilization wasn’t the antidote to war that the editors of The Encyclopedia Britannica assumed. Yeats summarized the apparent breakdown of society in The Second Coming (1919):

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ….

From a civilized center (Parry’s and Shackleton’s ships of empire), however, came a new order of art out of chaos, spikes of light emanating in all directions like a monstrance. Art was suddenly free to follow all manner of subplots, held together by whatever slim excuse the artist invented.

This revelation had been present in art for a long time. Artists out of necessity know that the only way out of restrictive society is the imagination. In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, anarchy ensues until order is restored, somewhat arbitrarily, by the Duke (or the author), at the last minute. Beethoven holds his last quartets together with a Bach-like structure underneath the Schönberg-like capriciousness of their surface.

Or there is the wrecked ship in Friedrich’s painting, and the tilt and ride of a gondola in Chopin’s Barcarolle. At least this is how I think of Chopin’s piece: a central theme, the rock of the gondola, around which swirl eddies, satellites, and anecdotes, the way the lights on a Christmas tree combine their chaos around the masthead of an iconic theme.

And yet these tectonic faults create mountains. Out of fragmentation came cubism. Weaknesses in our core force us to coat the world (a Yeatsian metaphor) in rhyme. Out of chaos comes art, that arises inexplicably, like phosphorescence at sea. The sailors who named it a “glory” or “halo” saw the grace inherent in the phenomenon. Nature sometimes shows too much of its hand.

I was thinking as well of Mark di Suvero’s girders, which lash out like solar prominences in his sculptures Vivaldi and Joie de Vivre. These ostensibly peripheral, unbalanced diagonals are actually central, like Friedrich’s Mast and the spire of the sinking church in Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral, manmade obelisks which rise to the skies, masts and spires both containing and railing against the heavens, as di Suvero frees construction of its skeletons by using those same skeletons. Like gamma rays which escape from black holes (which should be too powerful for that to happen), di Suvero’s steel beams are rays of radiation, which both embody and escape the rules of gravity.

It is through forces of nature that defy other forces of nature that we find the wormhole which eases us into dreams. Here and there certain works of art act like Möbius strips which demonstrate “things invisible to see.”

March 15th, 2014

Tippet Alley