From George Inness, who “translates just the light and feeling of a fixed hour,” to Vincent van Gogh, whose cypresses are like “voices of aspiration, joy or fear,” to Jackson Pollock, who, Robert Rosenblum wrote, “evokes the sublime mysteries of nature’s untamable forces,” artists continually try to capture and replicate the awe-inspiring and the invisible. On the occasion of the show “Beyond Stars: The Mystical Landscape” at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay (March 14–June 25), we perused ARTnews articles from 1911 to 2015, and found the yearning for the spiritual not only among traditional landscapists but also among contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Bill Viola, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Rachel Rose. All pursue enlightenment in the transcendent.
March 4, 1911
That which is remarkable above everything else in the art of George Inness is the skill with which he perceives and translates just the light and feeling of a fixed hour. He makes the spectator share with him the glory of the sunset, the pearly tints of dawn, the sentiment of twilight, and the gloom and awe of the approaching tempest in the American countryside.
—“Important Landscapes by George Inness,” by J. B. T.
Nov. 16, 1935
[Van Gogh] felt and knew the full impact of the personalities who were his sitters; revealed them through the simplest lines and masses. Single motives such as sunflowers, cypresses or pines also sing out in his paintings like voices of aspiration, joy or fear. But in seeking to imbue an entire scene with the intensity of mood, Van Gogh often forfeited the essential qualities in nature that are revealed to those of serener and less unstable soul.
—“Life of Van Gogh Is Fully Illumined by Great Display,” by Mary Morsell
Monet could not bring himself to believe in the Old Masters as Cézanne and Renoir did—or rather, he could not profit by his belief in them. In the end he found what he was looking for, which was not so much a new principle as a more comprehensive one: and it lay not in Nature, but in the essence of art itself, its “abstractness”—the qualities of the medium alone—as a principle of consistency makes no difference: it is there, plain to see in the paintings of his old age.
—“The Later Monet,” by Clement Greenberg
In [Jackson Pollock’s] Number 1, 1948, we are as immediately plunged into divine fury as we are drenched in Turner’s sea; in neither case can our minds provide systems of navigation. Again, sheer magnitude can help produce the Sublime. Here, the very size of the Pollock—68 by 104 inches—permits no pause before the engulfing; we are almost physically lost in this boundless web of inexhaustible energy. [. . .] But whether achieved by the most blinding of blizzards or the most gentle winds and rains, Pollock invariably evokes the sublime mysteries of nature’s untamable forces. Like the awesome vistas of telescope and microscope, his pictures leave us dazzled before the imponderables of galaxy and atom.
—“Tenth Street: A Geography of Modern Art,” by Harold Rosenberg
[Michael Heizer] is happiest when recklessly driving a big-wheel open truck across the Nevada desert, racing toward his Complex I which rises like an ancient and atavistic pyramid on a high plateau in the vast and endless desert space. There, between 1972 and 1976, Heizer and his hired workmen shared a hazardous and solitary life, erecting an earth and concrete structure that, for all intents and purposes, had no significance other than its own miragelike presence. [. . .]
“Complex I is designed to deflect enormous heat and enormous shock. It’s very much about the atomic age. It won’t burn up.”
—“Michael Heizer: ‘You might say I’m in the construction business,’ ” by John Gruen
Where an older generation of northern painters had treated it as equivalent to the shimmering water of the French Impressionists, artists such as the Swede Gustaf Fjaestad and the Canadian Lawren Harris seemed to regard snow as a symbol of quintessential northernness and isolation. In their paintings, instead of glittering fields of light-reflecting powder, we are confronted by snow as a solid, almost impenetrable element. When evidence of man’s presence in the wilderness is included, or when more urban scenes are depicted, the view remains consistent. Man and his creations are seen as relatively insignificant components of the universe.
—“The Call of the Wild,” by Karen Wilkin
[Pat Steir] sees her overwhelming “From the Sea” drawings, huge (60 by 100 inches), totally gestural works [. . .] as inspired by the Japanese artist Hiroshige and by Courbet, who imbued his nature paintings with a heavy sensuality. Her roughly scribbled, blue-black waves, depicted just at their breaking points, can be seen as both abstract and figurative, she says. [. . .] “We look at a beautiful landscape and gasp in terror. People are afraid to be moved, afraid to love. These emotions make them acutely aware of impermanence, and impermanence terrifies us. And it’s what we spend our lives adjusting to.”
—“Pat Steir: Seeing Through the Eyes of Others,” by Paul Gardner
In the early ’80s, [Anselm Kiefer] began to move away from the more specific references to Germany’s troubled history and he began to use other materials—sand, metal, paper, and found objects—on top of his oil paintings. [. . .]
“People called from the towns saying there wasn’t so much sand [during World War II].” Kiefer smiled. “But, you see, that is the point of the illusion—to draw people in. There’s a connection to Warhol in this, even if you don’t see it. He was so superficial in such a precise way that he went very deep. It’s the same with me. This painting is very superficial with the perspective, with the illusion, to get you into the layers of the image, to the conceptual part, to the idea of the land and what has happened there. The more you go back, under, the further forward you can go.”
—“Anselm Kiefer: A Call to Memory,” by Steven Henry Madoff
[Bill] Viola’s videotapes draw their visual vocabulary from his far-flung voyages across foreign landscapes and inside the human body. [. . .]
Viola’s art, like that of Robert Smithson or James Turrell, is situated within a contemporary art tradition that draws its authority and iconography from primitive art and mythology, reaching back in time to the origins of art in religion. Functioning as video shaman, mystic, psychotic, and artist, Viola drives his audience to the brink of awareness.
—“Bill Viola: Womb with a View,” by Deirdre Boyle
Epic in scope are [Hiroshi] Sugimoto’s seascapes, a project begun in 1980. “Again, at the outset, it was a very conceptual vision,” he explains. “I wanted to photograph just water and air, with the horizon at the center.” Stripped of all traces of late 20th-century culture—no airplanes, boats, pollution—these flawlessly calm seas (interrupted by the occasional pictorialist storm scene) return the viewer to an almost primordial vision.
—“Time Traveler,” by Leslie Camhi
[Rachel Rose] considers her art an inquiry that begins with barely felt emotion and culminates in something larger and more defined. [. . .]
“In the work, I’m thinking about what it’s like to be in infinite space from the point of view of a finite being, like a human,” Rose said. “There [are] no shots of space or anything like this in the work. It’s all very grounded, on-earth, but it’s trying to approach an infinite state from that perspective.”
—“More Is More and More,” by Alex Greenberger
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 127 under the title “Reaching for the Stars.”