Transpersonal Experience and the Role of the Artist

George Inness, "Indian Summer,"
George Inness, “Indian Summer,” 1894, 30 x 42, Private Collection

As a young person, I always had big questions about my experience of the world, my personal role within this world, and how these two concepts are intertwined. Because of this innate curiosity, I end up majoring in philosophy at Fordham University. Specifically, Phenomenology, which studies human experience in order to answer some of those big questions or at least provide a thread of insight.

Characteristically, the artist uses visual perception to discover the world for themselves and, secondarily, to reveal that personal vision to others so that they might share that vision. But the artist doesn’t just “see” nature; they feel it affectively through their body.

“I not only saw, but felt in my body all that I saw.”

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backwards, 1960, p. 214.

The artist feels through their body what they perceive. When viewing a landscape that I am painting, I have found myself not only perceiving the objects that I am painting, field, tree, and sky, but I find myself venturing up that hill and experiencing that long grass by running it through my fingertips, smelling its earthy smell and observing its color and forms up close. I have not left my painting position. But I have opened myself bodily to what I am experiencing visually and emotionally. I have broken through that wall that separates me, the subject, from nature, the object. This bond formed in me between what I see and feel and the object before me is called a transpersonal experience.

Walt Whitman expresses this so eloquently in “Salut un Monde,”

What do you see Walt Whitman?

Who are they you salute, and that one after another salute you?

I see a great round wonder rolling through space.

I see diminute farms, hamlets, ruins, graveyards, jails, factories, pal-aces, hovels, huts of barbarians, tents of nomads upon the surface.

I see the shaded part on one side where sleepers are sleeping, and the sunlit part on the other side.

I see curious rapid change of the light and shade…

Walt Whitman

Whitman rises above the earth bodily and looks down at what he sees. He is experiencing the activities of man from a distance, seeing them as diminutive compared to the rolling mass of the earth and the action of the sun. He takes on a cosmic role, not because he is an egoist, but because he embodies a unity of vision between himself and nature. Every artist does this, whether consciously or unconsciously. “But how is this possible, unless there is a bodily felt participation in things, an emphatic inhabiting of things, an openness to being touched by things, even at a distance?” (David Levin, Transpersonal Phenomenology: The Corporeal Schema, Northwestern University).

George Inness, "Landscape, Montclair,"
George Inness, “Landscape, Montclair,” 1894, Private Collection

As a painter, this interrelationship between feeling and perception is directly transferred to the canvas through the painting gesture, the brushstroke. I felt what I saw and felt what I painted; the gesture, the bodily movement of my arm and hand conveys all that I see, all that I am embodying in the moment, conveying a transpersonal experience through an open reverie. I am no longer separate and isolated from my subject. The subject and I are one and the same. This bodily attunement puts me in the presence of all things with no fixed boundary and leaves me utterly open to a newness and timeless encounter. Levin believes every person can reach this heightened and interpersonal connection to the world, but many lack awareness of this connection or cannot make the emotive leap. Levin states, “Transpersonal development restores the aliveness of this primacy, which tends to get subordinated, during our socialization, to the structural identity of the ego.”

The artist’s role is to be aware, attentive, and open to a transpersonal encounter. The artist, who is constantly practicing and immersed in self-reflection, paves the way for this experience even before they commence the painting of an image. There is a fluidity of engagement in the very practice of one’s art. The artist participates in a sympathetic relationship with their subject, attuned to the “spell” of the object and the emotive emanation elicited from the object to the artist. This desire carries us out of ourselves and changes us. And it is the very thing we share through our work.

George Inness‘ painting exudes this fluidity of engagement. Many of Inness’ late works contain vast spaces on the canvas with minimal variation in the color or paint quality. He flicks random strokes on the canvas, not necessarily identifiable as an object, creating spontaneous marks that add an aliveness. Inness gives us an experience of the transpersonal, an open engagement with the world. We imaginatively add to these passages, delving into Inness’ experience as if it was our own. This open, highly imaginative structure is one of the greatest achievements of painting. We are transformed and renewed through our perception, feelings, and embodiment of the subject- a transpersonal experience.

Robert Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922 

Judith Reeve, My version of Robert Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922-E

As my readers know, Robert Henri conducted intensive research into color palettes and contemporary color theory. But he also studied colored pigments to learn about their archival permanency and whether certain pigments could be mixed without affecting their integrity. Post WW I, artists’ pigments became corrupted with impurities because the war damaged Europe and its industrial complex. America had previously imported many pigments used to manufacture artists’ oil paints from Germany, Holland, and northern Europe. With this infrastructure damaged, artists’ pigments lacked quality. Henri, along with H.G. Maratta and George Bellows began an organization to support artists, The League of American Artists. Henri was tasked with studying artist pigments and producing a guide as to the permanency of artists’ oil paints on the market to help artists maintain a high level of material integrity in their work.

In Henri’s Pigment Notebooks, you see Henri looking at the pigment strength, purity, and lightfastnes of the color of, say, ultramarine blue and comparing it across all available brands. Henri also compared material, and chemical analysis by leading experts such as Blockx, Toch, Church, and others including some manufacturers like Winsor & Newton. Henri produced a document for The League of American Artists to be distributed to its members. It was in the style of a workbook in which artists could fill blank pages within the book as they conducted their personal research into their paint and pigments. This book was never published as the League disbanded for unknown reasons, probably financial.

What came out of this research by Henri was the development of a series of palette designs based on his study of pigments both organic and inorganic as well as, new synthetic pigments. Henri referred to these palettes as “The Permanent Palettes” because he was sure of their inherent integrity, and that each pigment could be intermixed on this palette with guarantees as to its archival quality. Henri began this series of palettes around 1920-21. I have reproduced here Henri’s Permanent Palette 1922-E. I chose to work with this palette because Henri synthesized and harmonized the Permanent Palette design over several versions landing on this final palette.

In this Permanent Palette, 1922-E, Henri’s goal was “to build up to color.” He begins on the top row (horizontal) by keeping his tones deep in value and suppressed in intensity. Most colors along this top-line contain some earth pigments with the exception of viridian [third from right], which suppress the chroma. Then in the descending columns, Henri increases the value and the intensity simultaneously in the middle values. Then, as the value increases with the addition of white added to the mixtures, the color loses its intensity. Therefore, the bottom of each column contains colors that are reduced in intensity by adding white, which is a neutralizer. The light tones of VR, BV, and GB, Henri will use as his lighteners (these will be used as substitutes for the raw white). So what you see is a progression from a dark semi-neutralized tone, to a middle value of high intensity followed by a reduction in intensity in the lightest notes. The highest chroma will fall within the halftone range on a portrait. [Note that the above version of this palette, I have replicated from Henri’s notes. I have also added wax medium to this version to suppress the reflection on the pigments. This has slightly lightened the overall value of the palette in this photo reproduction].

Intensity is concentrated in the middle-value range in this palette. Henri’s paintings at this time express color emerging out of a darkened neutrality as in “Bernadita,” 1922. These images seem a throwback to an earlier Henri style and may reflect Henri’s own emotions about the war in Europe. They are reminiscent of his earlier Spanish types. But these new images do not rely on simple blacks and browns as his earlier work had done. Henri imbues this new work with color that simmers below the surface and is not immediately felt. These deeper tones interact with the more intense colors in the middle range through simultaneous contrast- deep complementary tones highlighting the higher chroma areas. These images are experiments that help Henri realize his command of color in the late Irish portraits of children of 1926-28. Henri, in the late portraits, consolodates his color expression and allows color to vibrate on the surface of the canvas and within the viewer’s mind through optical transformations.

Judith Reeve, Color Field of mixes derived from Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922-E

My interest in these “Permanent Palettes” connects to my recent interest in George Inness’ landscapes. There is a prevailing sense of suppressing a portion of the full palette through neutral mixes and allowing other parts to reach full chroma. Combining these opposing levels of intensity creates a dynamic force within the image. By holding this force down, one actually gains in color power. It is an interplay that allows me to understand more clearly, the optical effects achieved through the juxtaposition of the large masses, the power of the neutral, and the movement between color temperature in the modeling of forms.

This type of experimentation opens one up to new ways of working and thinking. Henri’s goal was to engage in each painting moment as a new experience in which the artist brings to bear his whole being, not relying on rote habits of past painting methods.

“Personal experimentation is revealing, and, once you get into it, immensely engaging.”

Robert Henri, Art Spirit, p. 60