The spiritual vertigo of common life

Last Friday, in the Maxxi auditorium in Rome, Antonio Spadaro’s book «Oltrecolore. Hopper Rothko Warhol Basquiat »(Milan, Life and Thought, 2022, pages 120, euro 15). Among the speakers of the meeting, introduced by Giovanna Melandri, president of the Maxxi Foundation, the visual artist Gregorio Botta and Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education (whose intervention we publish).

If we pay attention to the title of Antonio Spadaro’s most recent work, Beyond color, it almost presents itself to us as an oxymoron. On the one hand, because, as the author recalls, there is an intrinsic, an unconscionable relationship between colors and life. We are reminded that “existence is always radically colored” and that “one cannot think of a life without colors”.

The world comes to us through the alphabet of colors (chromatic, sensorial, spiritual) and, even when we give in to the temptation to think of life “in black and white”, we cannot forget that “black and white are colors”.

Everything is therefore color. And yet, the adverb “beyond”, which in the title is strategically placed in the head, stands there as to indicate, more than a statement, a tension, since, if it is true that everything is color, we do not cease to be constantly called to dislocation, to go beyond, that is, to question ourselves about the limit that the visible can represent.

Each color has its own story

It is well known that in the contemporary philosophical debate, color has become a real battlefield (see the excellent state of the art outlined by Alice Barale, The yellow of color. A philosophical investigation, Jaca Book, Milan 2020). The question “what is color?” today it is prey to a strong hesitation as to whether color is a property of objects or is the result of the way in which our eyes, our brain and our language process objects. Already in a passage of his Philosophical research Wittgenstein wrote: «How can I recognize that this color is red? The answer could be that I have learned English. ‘ And, going back to the classical era, it is curious to note how the words used by the Greeks to designate colors do not coincide with ours.

In Homer, for example, the sea is never blue (it is “whitish”, “the color of wine”, “the color of violet” …), and one of the hypothetical reasons is that there is no word in his work that designates unmistakably the blue color. In this line, Spadaro tells the reader that “each color has its own story, which is also social and sentimental”. There is, in fact, a sociology of color and a private story that tells the role of certain colors in our autobiographical structure.

But the author goes further. He claims that this story is also metaphysical and even theological. And that to understand it “it would be enough to think of the colors of the liturgy to reveal the evidence that color is the environment of the sacred”. It is in this direction that this work leads us.

We could actually define Beyond color like a small mystagogy of color, where the painters Hopper, Rothko, Warhol and Basquiat are taken as unexpected informal masters of a research that, through color, projects us beyond it, probing silence, possibility and meaning.

The possibility of revelation

The book that Vita e Pensiero publishes at an opportune moment has an effective and elegant structure. In the prologue and epilogue (let’s call them that), we have a sort of memoir. To address the indispensable link between colors and life, Spadaro does not shy away from talking about him. Her writing, which, as her readers well know, is rarely autobiographical, in this case takes the form of a “sentimental relationship”, and this speaks volumes about the nature not only of theoretical discourse but of the vital teaching that this vibrant opera sets in motion. The author tells of the episodes of his childhood, remembers his mother, what for him represented the discipline of artistic initiation, the importance that the practice of painting had, at a certain point in his path, for the maturation of the gaze and the apprenticeship of freedom.

«I remember that I did not feel tied to the duty to represent the world. A mountain could be blue (…), or a red tree and so on. The color did not come to me from the object, but from a more real elsewhere than photography. Where it came from I don’t know exactly. I remember, however, that I was fascinated … ». And it will be under the sign of enchantment that, in the end, the reader will find a short syllabary of colors. There we almost have the sensation of finding the Spadaro of childhood again, in the notes that try to link “the transcendental experience of the Beyond proper to color” to the “continuation of an ordinary experience”. But the boy we started following at the middle school in Messina has built up an impressive wisdom, leaning against that window that is represented by color, proceeding along this canal.

Thus he explains: «If I mold red clay with my pink hands, it molds itself according to the will of my hands but it does not bleed, it does not lighten. Color proclaims resistance and builds a frontier ».

This is an important knowledge on which the possibility of relating with color is based. And, at the same time, also the possibility of revelation that it contains.

The gloved hand and the bare hand

Carver’s love of literature (one of tópoi of Spadaro’s intellectual and spiritual map) is revealed in the method used by the author to construct the essays on the four great American painters who occupy the central stage of the book. Yes, it is always the intelligence of a theologian that gets involved. It is always through an auscultation of a spiritual nature that one advances. It is always the design of the writing of a theologian that we follow (and one of the things for which contemporary theology is grateful to Antonio Spadaro is also the renewal of theological writing).

But the breath, the sensitivity and the ambition – when it brings us closer to Hopper, Rothko, Warhol or Basquiat – are what we find in the short stories by Carver. Spadaro writes about each of them one short story theological. And short not only by alluding to the dimension of the texts, but because – and this is Carver’s lesson, and perhaps also the lesson that modernity gives us – he makes himself available to enhance, not only the definitive and monumental proclamations, but also the its unpretentious sparkles, the subtle insinuations, the everyday and tiny narratives, the crumbled crumbs, the little revelations.

Enhancing not only the meeting, but the long, stabbing, empty, indecipherable, defenseless wait, like that of the woman that Hopper depicts sitting at a round table in a restaurant where food is served from vending machines. She «she is sitting near the entrance, right in front of the external window, which however does not let anything show from the outside … One hand is gloved, the other naked». I like to think that even this moving breviary that Father Spadaro offers us was written not with a gloved hand, but welcoming the contribution and beauty of the other, the bare hand.

From the point of view of Carver and Spadaro, rather than closing oneself in final sentences, it is necessary to gradually recognize, and without fuss, that the history of every human being is inhabited by the mystery of a form that we do not know. See, for example, the eulogy of Andy Warhol given by the art critic John Richardson, which Antonio Spadaro quotes: “I would like to recall an aspect of his character that he hid from all but his closest friends: the spiritual side of him. Those of you who knew him in circumstances that were antithetical to spirituality might be surprised that such a side existed. But this was there and it is the key to the artist’s psyche ». Carver / Spadaro’s method lays bare the spiritual vertigo of common life, but without any emphasis, without forcing, simply with the empathic decision to stand beside and wait. As in those lines in which Carver says: «I would like to get up early another morning, at least. / And go to my seat with some coffee, to put me on hold. / Waiting to see what will happen ».

Mystic in the wild

Among the four American creators mentioned, perhaps the exception is Mark Rothko, whose work is consensually close to spirituality. His obstinate search for a chromatic unity capable of expressing the limit between the sensible and the intelligible, between the present and the transcendent, brings us closer to apophatic mysticism. For this reason, it will not be too surprising to speak of his paintings as icons.

Rothko himself had said – and Spadaro remembers it: “Those who cry in front of my paintings live the same religious experience that I lived when I painted them”. In Rothko the shapes and colors go beyond the world of representation and in fact welcome the mystery with a religious language. His chapel in Houston is one example. But Spadaro also talks about icons with regard to Hopper, Warhol and Basquiat, and this surely tears us away from our comfort zone. But this disorientation is good. Of course it is not a question of thinking of these very intense and emblematic contemporary works in the same way that the philosopher Pavel Florensky thought of icons, in which he saw a sort of propagating wave of divine reality itself.

Florensky, in fact, accused the religious painting of the West, begun in the Renaissance, of being a radical artistic falsehood, since the artists, while protesting a strict fidelity to the reality depicted, were already disconnected from the reality they claimed to represent. According to him, the icon contrasts with the pictorial tradition that the Renaissance sedimented; it is not a window through which the human spirit enters the represented world, but it is the sublime inscription of a presence. The icon is the visible transparency of the vast invisible, metaphysical mirror, a gash of light that fixes “mysterious and supernatural spectacles”, according to a maxim by Dionysius the Areopagite. It is an ontological proof of the existence of God. This is not what Spadaro is looking for. On Andy Warhol, for example, he clarifies: «Warhol’s world is not to be deciphered, but it is definitely deciphered in its values ​​of nothingness, of emptiness. Warhol’s icon is the exact opposite of the oriental icon: it is the mirror image of him… There is no room for God in Warhol’s art ». Nevertheless, he does not fail to specify that what appears exactly as an erasing of God constitutes, on the contrary, “the safeguarding of him”: “God is always ‘outside’ the picture”. The icon of which Florensky speaks is “an image of the eternal and of fullness”, that of Warhol is an “image of the ephemeral and of the void”. But, Spadaro clarifies, “the form and the expressive procedure are the same”. And, further on: “Perhaps it would not be entirely without foundation to glimpse in this attitude even a form of nostalgia for the oriental icon, the power of representation of which would now be irremediably lost, and therefore to be preserved in its inviolability at the level totally private. Hence the inevitable irony of the serial replication of pop icons ».

And in the same way it brings us closer to Basquiat’s “irregular and undisciplined need for salvation”. Here, apparently, we have in the field, and in a brilliant way, only “a hallucinated vision”. But, as Spadaro makes us understand, «an inexhaustible and pure desire for beauty transpires from these works; (…) An invincible conflict between an obsession with matter and a spiritual tension ». Speaking of the little jewel that this book by Spadaro represents, I am reminded of what a contemporary Portuguese poetess writes: in certain situations, «the iconoclast / reconstructs the icon». If we think that the poet Paul Claudel had confessed that he thanked God every day because Rimbaud had existed, since it was thanks to that “mystic in the wild” who had learned to break the shell of the visible, we will not be surprised that, from the point of view from a believing point of view, we can thank for the work of Hooper, Rothko, Warhol and Basquiat.

from José Tolentino de Mendonça

The spiritual vertigo of common life – L’Osservatore Romano