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The concept and perception of beauty, since first contemplated by classical forebears - Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle - have gone through dramatic changes, especially in the course of the twentieth century, when beauty became of secondary concern for a majority of artists in the West. Indeed, since the second decade of the century, when the Dada movement was born and Marcel Duchamp's readymades marked the most radical dissociation of art from aesthetics, beauty has no longer been a necessary condition for art, but only one of numerous options.

Many artists have turned to non-objectivity, immateriality, and formlessness to contemplate aspects of the infinite. AdReinhardt, for example, defined his work as "apure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting ." No longer associated with beauty, this mode of art may, instead, evoke the sublime through blankness, void, or erasure.

Barnett Newman stated in 1948 that "the impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty." In his influential essay ,"The Sublime Is Now," Newman declared the replacement of the beautiful by the sublime to be a moving force of modernism. *His large canvases present unbounded expanses of color without form - at once emptiness and fullness. Inspired by the Kabbalistic idea that before God could create the world, He had to "contract" Himself and leave a vacuum in which creation could take place, Newman embraced the theme of absence as a sign of immanent presence.

Following in Newman's footsteps, this exhibition examines ways in which the participating artists employ absence, emptiness, or reduction to probe the intangible and the sublime.


Teresita Fernandez, American, born 1968
7:42 PM, 2002
Acrylic cubes, 1.37x6.55x0.25 m
Gift of the Associates Acquisitions Committee of American Friends of the Israel Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

Beauty, however, did not disappear: its reemergence in several of the works on display only underlines the complex coexistence of the sublime and the beautiful in contemporary art. Some of the artists look to the purity of abstraction as a means of capturing beauty, not as an extrinsic quality but as one that inheres in the realm of the mind and the spirit.

Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Yves Klein, and later Anish Kapoor have all explored the power of purity, perfection of form, and abstraction to elicit the sublime. "My paintings," said Martin, "have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything - no forms." Such reduction is akin to Zen's goal of emptying out in order to arrive at the point where zero equals infinity. Employing abstraction as a revelatory tool, Martin turned to geometry to create a structural base for her spare canvases. In Morning the graphite lines over the ash-gray acrylic achieve an equilibrium and a unity close to perfection. The grid of rectangles, like a delicate, almost invisible veil, spans the monochrome field, which can be perceived as a vast void or an utter flatness. Perfection is for Martin a synonym for beauty: "When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is a mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection." Although related to the abstract language of Newman, her canvases, like the paintings of Mondrian, seek to achieve a rational balance, order, and symmetry as an affirmation of absolute beauty rather than ethereal infinity.


Hiroshi Sugimoto , Japanese, born 1948
Sea of Galilee, Golan, 1992
Gelatin silver print on paper, 45.5x54.5 cm
Gift of the artist
Photograph © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
by Ofrit Rosenberg-Ben-Menachem

For Robert Ryman the question was not what to paint, but how to paint. Preoccupied with the painting's surface and edges, his all-white and always square works are about the countless nuances of whitness. Ryman's interest in the canvas's edges is here dramatized by highlighting its attachment to the wall by brackets - a technical device ordinarily hidden from view.

Yves Klein in his monochromes focused on pure color to prompt the viewer to "sense the soul, without explanation, without words." Blue, which he patented under the name IKB or International Klein Blue, was for him the purest and most spiritual of all colors: "Blue has no dimensions . . . blue recalls at most the sea and sky, that which is most abstract in tangible and living nature." The color blue thus became a metaphor for the void: "Having rejected nothingness," Klein wrote, "I discovered the Void." He had himself photographed plunging from a tall building into the street, calling the work Leap into the Void.

Anish Kapoor has also explored the transcendent qualities of pure pigment and emptiness. His series of "Voids," moving from emptiness to fullness, turns the void outward. In Untitled, a work from this series, an immense, concave hemisphere covered in blue pigment materializes Kapoor's desire "to make an object which is not an object, to make a hole in the space, to make something which actually does not exist."

Whereas abstraction has been a powerful vehicle by which to investigate the sublime, many artists look for this quality in the vastness of landscape. The luminous seascapes of Catherine Opie, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Paul Pfeiffer bring to mind the boundlessness and transcendency of Monk by the Sea, 1808-10, by the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

The horizon line in Catherine Opie's Untitled #6, from the "Surfers" series, diffuses into a misty sea and sky. The series was photographed in the early morning hours, when a light fog blurred the horizon and made the water's edge seem to dissolve into the sky. The tiny figureofthe lone surfer dramatizes the minute scale of a human being confronting the vastness of nature. The artist's choice of surfers, braving the ocean's waves, poses existential questions.

The minimal black-and-white seascapes of Sugimoto capture vast heavens and infiniteoceans. The horizon divides each picture into a duality of sky and sea, imparting stillness, serenity, and emptiness. Sugimoto's images hover between representation and abstraction, evoking the sublime with their limitless depth.

Paul Pfeiffer filmedsunrisesandsunsetsand fused them digitally into a single image in the video projection Morning after the Deluge, inspired by J. M. W. Turner's painting of the same title. Says Pfeiffer:

It is a study of the human figure,its place in the history of Western art, and its disintegration at the dawn of the digital age. In classical one-point perspective, all sight lines come together at the horizon, at the theoretical vanishing point where all things recede to infinity. The horizon is the primary visual reference for centering oneself within a landscape. In Morning after the Deluge this relationship is flipped: the horizon line is uprooted and allowed to wander across the picture plane, while the sun becomes the still point, the visual anchor in an upside-down world. The viewer is torn between two contradictory realities coexisting on a single picture plane. There is the reality of the sun rising and setting behind the earth's horizon and the opposing reality of the earth's horizon moving across the surface of the sun. The resulting split sense of reality in the eye of the beholder is the real theme and subject of Morning after the Deluge.

Teresita Fernandez' 7:42 PM, composed of hundreds of individually colored acrylic cubes - reminiscent of the fragmented brushstrokes of an Impressionist painting - stirs our memories of landscape and the fleeting effects of light and shadow, water, and sky. Magically, the cluster of shiny cubes suggests drifting clouds or the reflected surface of a shimmering lake.

Intrigued by the ephemeral and transient, Olafur Eliasson takes up an intermediate position between artists who refer to landscape and others who use light in their work. Eliasson's sculptural installations draw on natural elements - light, water, ice, steam, and rainbows - and the manner in which they are experienced. His preoccupation with light focuses on dematerialization and models of observation and perception. Your Activity Horizon is a darkened, empty room, pierced by a thin line of colored light that emanates from a narrow gap in the wall at eye level, with the colors changing every fifty seconds.The light's intensity energizes the entire space, with each color imparting a different quality and sensation. The horizon can be perceived as a visual metaphor for the balance between the human being and the environment; it has been the subject of numerous theoretical discourses, from Aristotle, through Kant, to such twentieth-century thinkers as Gadamer, Husserl, and Virilio. Although our vision is limited by the walls of the room, the luminous flux bestows a sense of limitless possibilities, just as, when looking out to sea, we discern the horizon hovering at an infinited istance.
Miroslaw Balka , Polish, born 1958
Dead End, 2002-2004
Ash; height 2.5 m, width and depth variable
Long-term loan from The Cranford Collection,London
Photograph: Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London

Conveying the immaterial through the medium of light, James Turrell's works have no referential character: they present and represent nothing; they are objects of perception and experience. In Shanta Red, an early example of the artist's work, a delicate optical balance exists between the two- and three-dimensional. The light from a projector falls into a corner of the darkened room to create a floating, seemingl ythree-dimensional form whose indistinct outlines challenge the imagination. A sublime experience is engendered as this ambiguous object, observed from different angles by the viewer moving through the exhibition space, dissolves like an apparition and transforms into a flatshape.


Catherine Opie, American, born 1961
Untitled #6 (from the "Surfers" series), 2003
C-print, 130.2x104.5 cm
Gift of Carol and Arthur Goldberg, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Whereas Turrell uses light fixtures as hidden tools to achieve the desired "object," they become the principal element of the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. His work, suffused with a subtle narrative sensibility, interweaves strands from his own life and ponders love and the painful loss of his lover. At the same time, embracing beauty as a life force, he aspires to transport the viewer to a "place of beauty, freedom, and pleasure." Like a flickering memory o fsuch venues as nocturnal garden parties, discos, boxing arenas, and theaters, replete with poetic connotations, his fragile light strings become symbols of enlightenment and spirituality, of warmth, optimism, and celebration.

Miroslaw Balka's Dead End, installed close to the exhibition entrance, compellingly addresses the theme of emptiness. Dark ash coats the walls of the empty gallery up to a height of two-and-a-half meters, transforming it into a tomb-like space. The installation as a bare space has a long list of forerunners, starting perhaps with Yves Klein's Void, 1958. In that work, the artist sought to invest an empty, whitewashed room with the energy of his "painterly sensibility," or imagination, and communicate that energy to exhibition visitors as a spiritual experience. The space of Balka's Dead End, in contrast, brings to mind specific crematoria from recent history; it is also a mournful memorial to the many works that were destroyed a few years ago by a fire in Balka's studio.

Mark Wallinger's video installation Via Dolorosa traces the process of disappearance. A black rectangular mask obliterates a projection of Franco Zeffirelli's film Jesus of Nazareth. The focus, as in Ryman's paintings, is shifted from the center to the edges or periphery, leaving the black blank hole to absorb the moving image almost completely. With some ninety percent of the image erased, the black void/screen becomes a tabula rasa on which the viewer can "project" his or her personal version of the well-known story. Wallinger's Ecce Homo forms a coda to the exhibition - as well as providing a counterpoint to Balka's Dead End. A triumph of representational art, this dreamlike white figure with closed eyes, deeply absorbed in his inner world, synthesizes the two concepts addressed by the works - the sublime versus the beautiful - in the most profound way. It would be appropriate in this context to ask, with Julia Kristeva: "Can the beautiful be sad? Is beauty inseparable from the ephemeral and hence from mourning? Or else is the beautiful object the one that tirelessly returns following destructions and wars in order to bear witness that there is survival after death, that immortality is possible?"

* The sublime has been a subject for philosophical discourse since Longinus in the firstcentury CE. In On the Sublime he defined this quality as the expression of agreat spirit that has the power to inspire ecstasy. Debate continued through the eighteenth century: Edmund Burke identified beauty with delicacy and harmony, and terror and pain as sources of the sublime; Immanuel Kant, in turn, understood the sublime as a notion that applies to the mind rather than to the object.

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