By DONALD KUSPIT, May 2022
Geometry is knowledge of the eternally existent.
Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany. It is a fitting term, because it does not imply anything further; it expresses no more than is implicit in its etymological content, i.e., that something sacred shows itself to us.
-- Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (1)
It was not for nothing that white was chosen as the vestment of pure joy and immaculate purity. And black as the vestment of the greatest, most profound mourning and as the symbol of death.
-- Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Spiritual in Art” (2)
From Malevich To Gerritz: Hierophanic Abstraction Perfected
Writing about his Suprematist Black Square on a white background, 1913, generally regarded as the first unequivocally non-objective painting, Malevich declared that “it is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins.”(3) It is a creative movement from non-being to being, a revelatory movement in which being become manifest. Malevich’s Suprematist Black Square is a kind of religious icon, as art historians have convincingly argued—a kind of Christian icon manque, as it were--but instead of depicting Jesus Christ or some saintly figure it has been understood as suggesting the Deus Absconditus, even the unknowability, not to say unrepresentability, of God. Or else the dark night of the soul in which one can finally see the light of God, lurking in the pure white background of the impenetrably black square, surrounding it like an aura, so that it becomes more indisputably manifest, not to say in the viewer’s—worshipper’s--face.
All these associations clearly inform and enrich our understanding of Malevich’s Black Square, and his many other black abstractions—in the same 1915 exhibition in which his Black Square appeared a black cross, black rectangle, and black parallelogram were also exhibited. But the Black Square was hung above them all, in a corner of the room, at an intersection where two walls meet to form a right angle, a manifestation of the sacred in all its mystery, indeed, a sign that the seemingly simple geometry of a square–pure intelligibility uninformed by sensuous experience, as its blinding blackness suggests--had profound meaning. Indeed, a sacred meaning, for a square is “permanently set in perfection, as in the case of the Heavenly Jerusalem.” “It is the symbol of the created universe as opposed to the uncreated,”(4) suggesting the double meaning of Malevich’s Black Square: insofar as it is a square it symbolizes the created universe, insofar as it is black it symbolizes the uncreated universe. Its double meaning suggests that it is the creation in process—unfinished process. The square is a spiritual symbol and transcendental form—geometry epitomized intelligibility for Plato—but the blackness with which Malevich materializes it—gives it body, as it were--suggests that it has become an abyss, or rather a “desert,” as Malevich said, and suggesting that the gallery space in which it was exhibited had become a chapel in which it was to be worshipped as a sign of God, indeed, its blackness the embodiment of God’s mysterious presence.
Explaining Suprematism, Malevich declared that it meant “the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth. Feeling is the determining factor…and thus art arrives at non-objective representation—at Suprematism. It reaches a ‘desert’ in which nothing can be perceived but feeling. When, in the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field, the critics and, along with them, the public sighed, “Everything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert ….Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!”…No more ‘likeness of reality,’ no idealistic images—nothing but a desert! But the desert is filled with the spirit of non-objective sensation which pervades everything….Suprematism is the rediscovery of pure art which, in the course of time, had become obscured by the accumulation of ‘things’.”
Frank Gerritz is the heir of Malevich, as the “wall sculptures,” as he called the drawings, all black pencil or paintstick on paper or panel, in his 2015 exhibition “The Definition of Space (Four Center Connection),” make clear. In one work a large black square is centered on a white ground—an unmistakable Suprematist work, a direct homage to Malevich. Contained in a white frame as though in a halo, it becomes a sacred mystery. The edges of the frame are raised, as though to heighten the revelatory effect. Black and white are at odds yet reconciled—brought into harmonious relationship without their difference being denied--through geometry: they are both given form by the square. If they were not given transcendental form—iconic presence—by the square they would be formless sensations, however emotionally evocative. Other “wall sculptures” are also abstract icons, now with a narrow band of black--a rectangle—standing upright on a white ground. It hardly fills the luminous white space, as the opaque black square almost does. In one work the upright rectangle fits comfortably in an upright rectangular frame, in another work it is at odds with a horizontal frame.
Gerritz pulls out all the geometrical stops in a number of other two-dimensional works, increasingly complex and subtle, among them Territory, 1991-1996, Four Center T, 1996, and, with particular dramatic brilliance, The Center, 1994, a wall drawing of an upright rectangle, its monumentality and blackness almost overwhelming, centered on the seemingly thin white wall of a gallery, the totemic authority of the grandiose geometry reducing the wall to irrelevance. In contrast, Headline, 1995, a wall drawing of a thin black horizontal form—a sort of horizon line—moves from one white wall of a gallery to another, threatening no one, however bleak the headline may be, considering its blackness. Gerritz’s geometry is hypnotic, whether intimidating or inviting, and sanctifies the gallery, for it becomes a space in which eternal geometry becomes indisputably manifest. The black forms are as resolutely flat as the white walls, the geometry of both at odds, as the irreconcilable black and white indicate—all the more so because of their antithetical existential meaning, as Kandinsky notes—yet they are peculiarly reconciled by way of the wall’s flatness, so that the black geometry and the white background of the wall become a singular grand icon. One is in fact walking into an icon when one enters the gallery—inhabiting an icon rather than simply viewing it from a distance. Indeed, the whole gallery becomes a sublime timeless space, emblematic of eternal truth, in Kant’s sense: the mathematical grandeur Gerritz’s treatment of the gallery’s space lends to it—his ingenious transformation of it into a Suprematist work of art--has a universal significance independent of anyone’s particular experience of it, for it brings with it awareness of mathematical reason(ing), which is eternally valid and as such “divine,” as Kant argues.
At the same time that Gerritz is making his two-dimensional wall drawings he begins to make three-dimensional sculptures, the four free-standing Two Center Block works, 1996. Perhaps anticipated by the three-dimensional Column Drawing, 1992, a geometrical totem, the Center Block works have the same volumetric fullness and density although they are somewhat smaller and more compact—introverted rather than extroverted?—and have a monadic character. The four Two Center Block sculptures were exhibited, on the floor, in front of eight Center Block wall drawings, each displaying a square form from the sculptural block, laying it out flatly as though on a slide, a bit of geometrical tissue from an anatomy lesson. The shift from 2D to 3D—from square to cube—is a crucial step in Gerritz’s development, for it prepares the way for his installation in the three dimensional space of St. Peter’s church, making its spiritual significance self-evident. In a church “something sacred shows itself to us,” to allude to the epigraph from Mircea Eliade, “something wholly different from the profane”—the profane world outside the sacred space of the church. Eternally existent geometry is “something sacred,” all the more explicitly—and paradoxically--so when it is made materially manifest, as it is in Gerritz’s three dimensional cubes, and when it is installed in a church, its own geometry materially manifest. Standing freely and alone in space, Gerritz’s three-dimensional “solid geometry” is more obviously autonomous than the “dematerialized” two-dimensional geometry in his drawings. Attached to the gallery’s wall, the autonomy of the square seems peculiarly compromised, and with that its multiple symbolic meanings lost. Nonetheless, they convey Gerritz’s spiritual ambition. It is perhaps nowhere more explicit than in his Seraphic Light, Icon, 1996 and Seraphic Light, Tranesonic, 1996-97—the black light of the Deus Absconditus. As their titles indicate, they are explicitly sacred works of art, making it clear what it means to be “in a desert” and with that be “free from the ballast of objectivity” and free to make “non-objective representations,” to recall Malevich’s words.
Gerritz’s geometry, more insistently in your face when it is three-dimensional and occupies the viewer’s space, and especially when it becomes a whole environment in which the viewer is a participant observer—as occurs in St. Peter’s church, transformed by Gerritz’s installation into a total work of art (which is what churches have always been, especially Catholic churches such as St. Peter’s) rather than a passive spectator in a gallery--makes the meaning of being “in a desert” explicit in a way than Malevich’s rather tidy geometry never does. One goes into a church, a kind of desert in the world, in view of the fact that it is an otherworldly and with that unworldly space, to “find” and “commune” with—worship--God rather than to appreciate art, however appreciative one may be of the church’s artful geometrical construction and the iconic art that “adorns” it. It is a lonely space in which one can be alone with God.
The Saving Grace Of Geometry
The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad and the wilderness shall rejoice.
-- Isaiah 35.1
Moses, Mohammed, Christ had their revelations—communicated with God—in the solitude of the desert, and so did Malevich. There are no “likenesses of reality” let alone “idealizing images” in the desert: it is a barren, unlivable, unworldly place—but a place of purification, as Jung says, or, as Richard of St. Victor says, “the desert is the place where the ascetic life may be interiorized,” where “lusts and diabolical imaginings are exorcised.”(5) For Malevich “likenesses of reality,” some no doubt lustful, like those that tempted St. Anthony, and “idealistic images,” like traditional religious “objective representations,” had to be purged if art was to once again become “pure, no longer obscured by the accumulation of ‘things’,” especially figures. I suggest that to purge art of images of things, be they idealized and beautified or matter-of-factly realistic, is to perform what Edmund Husserl called an epoché. Geometry is both the means and end of the epoché for Gerritz, all the more so because it confers “the peace that surpasses understanding” that “eternally existent phenomena” bring with them. It is the saving grace in a world that seems without reason. Detaching it from the experience of objects—treating it as what Malevich calls a “non-objective sensation” and as such “pure,” a form in itself rather than informing any object, self-evident rather than an aspect of some object—the square is known in what Husserl calls its “essential necessity,” “essential universality,” “essential truthfulness.” No longer compromised by serving a representational purpose, Gerritz’s square has what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls presentational immediacy—the presentational immediacy of an abstract geometrical icon. Meditating on it--worshipping the Deus Absconditus, the unrepresentable God it evokes, gives us the will power to rise above—transcend--the everyday lifeworld and its emotional, even physical vicissitudes.
Epoché is an ancient Greek word for “cessation.” It came to mean, in the words of Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus, “a state of the intellect in which we neither affirm nor deny anything” in order to induce a state of ataraxia, freedom from worry and anxiety, that is, emotional suffering. More broadly, the Stoics used it “to describe the withholding of assent to Phantasia (impressions),” and for the Stoic Epictetus it meant to withhold assent to everyday feeling, in effect suspending belief in it—transcending both, without denying that they and the anxiety implicit in them, naturally occur. As the philosopher John Cogan writes in The Phenomenological Reduction, that is, the epoché, “we live our lives in terms of what Husserl calls a ‘captivation in acceptedness,’ that is to say, we live our lives in an unquestioning sort of way by being wholly taken up in the unbroken belief-performance of our customary life in the world…The epoché is the procedure by which we no longer accept it….The epoché is the name for whatever method we use to free ourselves from the captivity….The important point to be made in reference to the phenomenological reduction is that it is a meditative technique.” Meditating on Gerritz’s square, we transcend our anxiety by freeing ourselves from captivity in the everyday world—from believing in it--which it inevitably arouses, if only because we have to perform in it to survive. Disavowing it with a kind of stoicism, we hold our own in it. As the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes, Husserl’s “phenomenology is a transcendental philosophy which places in abeyance the assertions arising out of the natural attitude”—assertions such as the objective representational works of art Malevich dismisses and transcends when he enters the desert of non-objectivity, that is, transcendental abstraction, which deals with essences, be they essentialized colors, lines, forms—“but it is also a philosophy for which the world is ‘already there’,” that is, in which colors, lines, forms, objects naturally exist.
Performing an epoché is not merely an intellectual exercise, but a therapeutic procedure, for it frees us from suffering, or gives us a certain perspective on it, or what the aesthetic Edward Bullough calls psychic distance or detachment from suffering, particularly death anxiety. What is more anxiety-free than a geometrical form—than Malevich’s square, which neutralizes the blackness of death by containing it, so that it can be thought about. Like all geometrical forms, Malevich’s square can be thought about, but its blackness only felt, but contained in the square the sensational black, and the death anxiety it evokes, can be managed, containment being necessary for processing and managing feelings without denying them, as the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion says. One might say that what Cogan calls the “astonishment” or Merleau-Ponty calls the “wonder” implicit in the epoché indicate that it is a numinous experience, and like all such experiences involves identification with the object of its attention—Gerritz’s geometry—in the belief that it has healing power. Dare one say that it is an antidote to the self-defeating emotion the blackness it contains evokes? Subsuming the blackness, the geometry neutralizes it without denying it, and thus confirms that it—and the death it symbolizes—has “lost its sting,” as the New Testament says.
There is no black death in the sacred space of the Jesuit-run St. Peter’s church; light streams through its windows. St. Peter was crucified upside down, but the cross will raise him to heaven as it did Christ. Indeed, the cross’s geometry is implicitly heavenly—its sacredness confirms his sacredness, makes the body crucified on it sacred. Rubens was baptized in the church, which contains his 1638 painting of St. Peter’s crucifixion, an angel ready to crown him with a wreath as he ascends to heaven. For all the grimness of the scene, his naked body is bathed in light, in contrast to the dark clothing of his executioners. He will be saved, reminding us that the church is a sacred space, a quiet restful space of worship set aside and apart from—incommensurate with—the profane materialistic world, noisily getting and spending, to allude to Wordsworth’s famous phrase, a place where one is at peace with one’s neighbors rather than competitively at war with them, where God will become emotionally manifest through worship, use his grace to save our souls from damnation, raise us to the sacred space of heaven that the church symbolizes. Light streams through its windows, blessing us all.
Gerritz’s geometrical installation confirms the sacredness of the space, for geometry is as sacred—eternally existent—as God, indeed, Gerritz’s God, and a symbol of himself, as the fourteen floor pieces, emblematic of the 14 Stations of the Cross, imply. A 180 centimeters wide and 742 centimeters long, they cover—march across, as it were—the length of the central nave of the church. They are emblematic of Gerritz, who is 180 centimeters tall—and as upright and strong as any of the massive iron bars that mark the 14 Stations like milestones. They imply that he has become an iconic artist. Their base is a 14 by 14 centimeter square, confirming that he is as sacred as a square—stands on and within a square, in effect his halo, and with that has become a kind of saint of art, indeed, a “divine artist,” a consummate master of pure art, an uncompromising perfectionist. And as sacred as Christ, for the 14 Stations of the Cross mark Christ’s way to his crucifixion—the distance between the bars that symbolize each station is 42 centimeters, the length of a step, according to Gerritz. The entire installation is a kind of imitatio Christi. It is a consummate statement of Gerritz’s mystical obsession with the dialectic of black and white—inseparable yet at odds—that informs all his art. “Dark Sides,” installed behind the east altar—a paradoxical placement, for the sun rises in the east—of the church and “Im Ersten Licht” and “Im Letzen Licht” installed in the Baptistry on the westside of the church, where the sun sets, make Gerritz’s sense of the unresolvability of the conflict of life and death--irreconcilable opposites—self-evident. But they hint that it can be overcome, for the Baptistry is a place of possibility: baptized in the water of life, the way Christ was baptized by St. John, one eyes can see the “eternal light” of God. Gerritz’s abstract art is a sacred art in more ways than one.
St. Peter is a Jesuit church, and the Jesuits are known for their intellectuality, suggesting that making and installing his geometrical art is a kind of intellectual exercise for Gerritz—perhaps a sort of spiritual exercise, like those the Jesuits practice. Certainly it is a sophisticated art that invites meditation rather than a picturesque art that invites naïve appreciation. There is clearly no better place for Gerritz’s sacred geometry than in St. Peter’s church, for it complements and embodies its sacred geometry, gives its spiritual geometry monumental form. The “closed,” solid geometry of Gerritz’s sturdy, epic sculptures—as distinct from the “open,” transparent geometry of his drawings, oddly lyrical however also “declarative”--paradoxically reaffirms and reinforces the spiritual geometry of the church’s open space, the way a revelation makes what is mysterious and obscure clear and enlightening. Gerritz’s installation in St. Peter’s church is the climactic work of his career, a masterpiece that confirms his mastery of abstract space, for a church as well as a gallery is an abstract space—a geometrical space, a space that becomes a church when Gerritz’s sacred art is installed in it. WM
1. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1961), 11
2. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 186 S
3. All quotations from Malevich are from Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1968), 341-343
4. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (Lond on: Penguin, 1996), 912. The created universe has four sides, four elements, four compass directions. Human life has four phases. In Christianity the shape of the square symbolizes a “righteous” life, alluding to the four right angles and equal corners of the square. Similarly, the perfect figure is geometrically perfect, that is, both a square and a circle—a square inscribed in a circle, as in Leonardo’s famous drawing. According to Vitruvius, “just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are perfectly square.” Gerritz’s obsession with geometry indicates his pursuit of moral as well as physical perfection.
5. Ibid., 285
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author