By Alan Bisbort
3:11 PM EST, February 28, 2013
When T.S. Eliot was completing his cycle of poems called The Four Quartets in 1942, German bombs were falling near where he worked in London. Given the setting and his own often inscrutable intellectualism, this work — six years in the making — was something of a miracle, and now considered one of the finest achievements in 20th century verse.
When artists Bruce Herman and Makoto Fujimura began to simultaneously immerse themselves in The Four Quartets more than 60 years later, two jet planes had just been flown into the World Trade Center near Fujimura’s New York apartment, forcing him to relocate with his family for several months, and a fire at Herman’s Gloucester studio destroyed much of his life’s work. Both artists felt as if they, as Fujimura said, “needed a landing place…a temporary home” for their imagination. When they talked about their shared love for Eliot’s book-length poem at a Manhattan gathering in 2009, the idea for a collaborative art project was born. The result is “QU4RTETS,” now on view at Yale University Institute of Sacred Music’s Gallery of Sacred Arts through March 8.
To fully grasp this exhibition, you must approach it as more of a pilgrim than tourist or curiosity seeker, in the spirit, as Eliot wrote, of “complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” The venue itself almost demands it, a quiet out-of-the-way conference room (NG-58) entered through an unmarked side door. No wall text, no benches or context is provided, just a large, hushed room inside which Herman’s life-sized figurative paintings are interspersed with abstract work by Fujimura of varying sizes. One could easily be taken aback by the prospect of such an installation, where the abstract work is hard at first to get a feel for. But once you enter the room, and walk to the far end then look back, taking in all of the paintings from a distance, the reverence of the artists slowly enfolds you.
These paintings are not “literal” depictions of Eliot’s verse but they, Herman said, “parallel” the poem. His paintings are particularly moving in this context, with one showing a woman standing beside a tree, seemingly waist deep in water but really drowning in autumnal meditation. (“QU4RTETS No. 3”). This same woman is found in another painting depicting summer, her arms outstretched to the sheer abundance of life; given the setting, one can’t help but see echoes of a (“QU4RTETS No. 2”). In another, an older man resembling David Carradine’s Caine in Kung Fu reflects the wintry theme (“QU4RTETS No. 4”). In the spring image, a handsome boy is perched in a tree, his gaze inscrutable (“QU4RTETS No. 1”) Is he hiding? Playing? Scared of something? Or simply spaced out, as boys his age are wont to be?
All of this makes a nice transition to a second gallery devoted entirely to Fujimura’s “The Four Holy Gospels and the Golden Sea.” It’s a deeply meditative space, filled with a series of 85 or so tiles, beautifully colored in a swirl of reds and blues and greens, with some revealing rudimentary letters, as if the artist is trying to communicate from the midst of abstractions, then simply giving up. The deep meditative effect is enhanced by the mural-sized paintings, as though Fujimura wants to emulate the religious aura created by Mark Rothko at the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
A visitor can’t pretend to fully know what it all means, but nonetheless Fujimura’s work has a deep effect on one’s spirit. This is not about language or even “thought” but what Eliot identified in one of his “quartets” as “…the music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts.”
“QU4RTETS: Works of Makoto Fujimura and Bruce Herman” on view through March 8, ISM Gallery of Sacred Arts, 409 Prospect Street, New Haven, (203) 436-5955, www.yale.edu/ism
An artist reception and interdisciplinary event, “T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as Poetry, Music, Art is scheduled for Saturday, March 2, from 4 to 6 p.m.
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