By DONALD KUSPIT, August 2021
…man’s leading psychological problem—the problem of how to cure his crumbling self.
--Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self(1)
From the beginning, abstract art was concerned with the self, more particularly with its sensations and emotions, as Kandinsky said,(2) and had a therapeutic purpose, as his conception of it as a kind of “color therapy” indicates.(3) “Colored light can have a particular effect upon the entire body,” he noted, more particularly a “spiritualizing” or healing effect on the self, for color contains in itself a “germ of healing.”(4) Biden has had a troubled life—a recovering addict who has had more than his share of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as Shakespeare put it, and seems to have awakened from what Kandinsky called “the whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude,”(5) probably because of what psychoanalysts call a mid-life crisis (he’s 51, more than half way through the proverbial six score and ten years the Bible allots to life)--he has turned to abstract art to heal himself. Art has served a therapeutic purpose since David played his harp for Saul, lifting his spirit, that is, released him from his painful emotions, not to say masochistic misery. It is worth noting that Kandinsky thought of his art as musical—”color is the keyboard” the painter plays, he wrote(6)—and the therapeutic value of painterly music has been noted since Wagner’s inspired Kandinsky’s. Biden plays the keyboard of colors as deftly as he does, however different his abstract music, for it has a more urgent sense of purpose, Biden attempting to save his soul not simply express it. When consciousness is at an existential loss, and all but overwhelmed by suffering, what has been called the spiritual unconscious comes to one’s rescue, often in the form of creativity. At the least, Biden’s art suggests that he has a new raison d’etre—being a lawyer did not seem to give him one--and with that become more introspective than he seems to have been in the past. Assuming they are expressions of his state of mind, there is not the slightest hint of depression or sense of futility in his paintings, as one might expect, considering the fact that his public behavior has been questioned and his private life dissected—certainly enough reason for paranoia—but rather a certain sense of elation, and with it self-transcendence, however much the head in Untitled #1, 2020 and the hand—writing a confession in a stream of consciousness?—in Untitled #2, 2021, both implicitly his own, are earth-bound, as their rootedness in nature, lushly alive and growing, suggests.
If Biden’s self crumbled—broke down, fragmented and collapsed under social pressure and perhaps also because of guilt (he seems to have had survivor’s guilt after the accident that killed his mother and sister when they were both children)—then St. Alban, St. Ambrose, and St. Thomas, all 2020, show him restoring it, in the process of piecing the fragments together in a grid, emblematic of his new integrity. Made symbolically whole again by containing and ordering them in the grid, he saves himself from the chaos generated by their conflicting colors and sizes. Each of the color patches are full of feeling, and in St. Alban and St. Ambrose cemented together by streams of blood—the red blood of the martyred saints?—in contrast to St. Thomas, where they tend to be packed together, at least in the lower half of the work, perhaps alluding to St. Thomas’ famously complex, dense writings. All of these works are symbolic abstractions, and all of them testify to Biden’s Catholic faith, which seems to have come to his rescue, raised his spirits and restored meaning to his life, which perhaps had become meaningless because it perhaps had become too sinful—certainly addiction is a sin against the self. All three works are masterpieces of what has been called transcendental abstraction—more particularly, they are abstract representations of three saints who have achieved transcendental status. They are Biden’s “personal” saints; his abstractions evoke them by praying to them. Radiant with vibrant colors--blue, brown, green, yellow, red, in various tones and strengths, making common aesthetic and expressive cause even as they remain distinctive, insistently stand out of the grid even as they seem stuck in it—the three abstractions testify to the convergence of the so-called religion of art and the religion of God, inviting the spectator to worship both. Art does have the saving grace of God for Biden, the saving grace that his saints have. Biden’s three abstract paintings would make wonderful stained glass windows in a Catholic church, for the yellow in them alludes to the light of God that would shine through the glass and the blue alludes to the heavenly sky that could be seen through it, making for a doubly rich spiritual experience. The saints have disappeared in Untitled on Canvas #1, 2020, replaced by a devilish femme fatale, a sort of seductive nymph springing from the earth as her greenish hue suggests: we have been ousted from the abstract heaven Biden’s saints inhabit. Dare one say that for him inspired purely abstract painting is the modern form of traditional devotional painting? The imitatio Cristi that the lives of his three saints exemplify suggests that Biden too has realized he has to follow Christ—or at least His saints--if he is to be saved, or at least lead a good life. The golden yellow breaks through the brown, blue, and green grid in St. Thomas, suggesting that Biden has had an epiphany, a revelation—found faith in God having lost faith in the world. To emphasize: Biden is painting to save his soul. The aesthetic brilliance and ingenious construction of his three sacred paintings show his determination to do so.
If Biden’s geometrical grid symbolizes the sacred space of heaven, then the magnificent, miraculous, luminous growths—flowers? trees?--in 017 and 019, both 2020, epitomize the sacredness of nature, for they suggest that earth is a heavenly paradise, as the blue aura that emanates from and encompasses them indicates. One plant is green and bursting with what seem to be grapes, the other is black and bursting with what seem to be blueberries. Whatever they particularly are, both are clearly flourishing plants, symbols of abundance, the heavenly blue suggesting they are gifts of God, certainly miraculous mirages, akin to the burning bush of the Bible, a sign of God’s power and presence. Seemingly archetypal—Biden admits to the influence of Jung, and seems to have seen the quasi-abstract images in Jung’s Red Book. But Biden’s exotically bizarre flowers—trees lush with eternal life?—are more uncannily otherworldly, more brilliantly colored and ingeniously formed, and with that more sensuously engaging as well spiritually convincing. They are vivid symbols of Biden’s flourishing creativity and spiritual aspiration. They have an iconic presence, indicating their transcendental character, for they seem to be growing in a garden of emotional paradise.
Biden is a master of color, in all its expressive shades of emotional meaning, as the interacting colors that inform the three-dimensional and two-dimensional triangles that appear in Euclidean Rhapsody, 2020, a masterpiece of geometrical complexity, make clear. On one side, black, snake-like—dare one say devilish?--gestural forms seem to threaten, certainly impinge on, a multi-dimensional—certainly more than three-dimensional--triangle, its colorful planes tightly integrated. On the other side, flattened pyramids—triangles that hold their own in abstract space—seem to be piled on one another or grow out of one another, rising like a tower of abstract Babel in a red sky, punctuated by small globular forms, some blue as the sky, some yellow as the sun. The cosmic expanse of both sides, and their conflicting appearance, along with the tensions built into them—they are almost indecipherably complex constructions, ambiguously two- and three-dimensional, not to say multi-dimensional--suggests they epitomize the difference between destructive hell and reparative heaven. Biden has transcended nature in both abstract works—we are far from the spiritualized nature of the miraculous growths—but remains stuck between colorful heaven and dark hell on one side, and aloof in colorful heaven on the other side. The difference—contradiction--between the two works, painted on opposite sides of the same piece of sheet metal, suggests that Biden remains inwardly conflicted however spiritually enlightened. His art therapy—his therapeutic use of art—has served him well, not only because it has made him aware of his innate creativity, and put it to good use—he has produced original works that hold their own in the modernist tradition of abstract art—but because it has made him aware of himself, and saved him from a fate worse than death, becoming another one of the lawyers that Plato banished from society. WM
(1)Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York: International Universities Press, 1977), 287
(2)Wassily Kandinsky, “Content and Form,” Complete Writings on Art, eds. C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 87
(3)Kandinsky, “On the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular,” Ibid., 159
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