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Sunflower stop signs



Snowfall, denser and denser,

dove-coloured as yesterday,

snowfall, as if even now you were sleeping.

–Paul Celan


Raised in Canada, I wait each year for the first snowfall the way a connoisseur waits for the release of a small-batch whiskey; it falls with that shiver of cold, new silence.


Recently the NY Times pointed out that in the 12th century, before musical notation existed as we know it now, a pause in music depended on the acoustics of the monastery or church in which it was being played. The pause was as long as it took for the reverberations of preceding notes to be stilled.


So much about art, in fact, is really about silence. Aptly named, the still life has been for centuries a small ode to the stilling of things, usually common, familiar things. I have mentioned Chardin before. Zubarán. Van Gogh. That dazzling cascade of Dutch artists in the 17th century who took a jug, a spray of flowers and froze them into luminous serenity, a parenthesis of silence, and by so doing urged us to slow down, even to stop and look with appreciative intensity at those humble friends of our existence, old shoes or a glass of water or the eggs we’ll eat for supper. What are Van Gogh’s famous yellow paintings but sunflower stop signs?


If you listen to Anton Webern’s Quartet, Op. 22: I. Sehr mässig, you hear, not a usual march of melody, but isolated mutters and scurries of sound arising from a canvas of silence. In fact, as so often is the case, the silence, the emptiness, the unpainted tract of canvas, is as important as the paint or the music itself. The poet John Keats called it Negative Capability, our capacity to invest that silence, that cesura with meaning equal to, or even transcending, the tangible elements of the work. In John Cage’s famous 4’33”, the performer sits at a piano but plays nothing; instead, the silence is the music, accentuating the beautiful coughs, giggles and other twitches of restlessness that start to arise from the audience.


The mad court in our capital is the incarnation, as many have pointed out, of our own addictions to noise, strife, and diversion. Al Gore observed that we will save this earth not so much through activism or legislation as by stepping into the pup-tent of our own moral imagination, our own interior silence, there to begin to heal those addictions and straighten things out at the root.


I have loved, in particular, two silences in art–the circle and the color white. I was invited, a number of years ago, to give a lecture at a monastery. I was apprehensive. What, I grumbled to Lynne, could I possibly say to a bunch of guys who looked, in their beards and robes, like fifty versions of Moses? That adds up to five hundred commandments. I’d be careful, she laughed. I was. Taking my cue from a labyrinth in the woods, I spoke about the circle in art. From Giotto’s haloes to Buddhist sand paintings to Ansel Adams’s moons, a circle is an enclosure. It holds in and it shuts out. It makes a psychic sheepfold, a sanctuary, a stillness: it is, I believe, the fundamental geometric signature of our being.


White is the other silence. Alix Harrow, in Ten Thousand Doors of January, writes: And now: I sit at my yellow wood desk with a pen in my hand and a stack of cotton pages lying in wait, so clean and perfect that every word is a sin, a footstep in fresh-fallen snow. White invites “sins” of our incursion like a lover’s breast invites a kiss.


Yes, I know, white has its troubles, its darkness, associated as it is with militant purity and sanctity. As the old hymn goes, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. But, in a very different light (Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, infinite list) those are its virtues too–a snowfall, denser and denser, dove-colored as yesterday, snowfall, as if even now you were sleeping.


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