Essay: The Blue Horse

Posted on March 13, 2012


The Chinatown bus that takes me frequently back and forth from New York to Boston uses Route 84 through Connecticut, a highway that at times feels little better than I-95, its neighbor to the east, yet like all long roads still offers its own take on the landscape. Of chief interest to me is a hill somewhere along the road, which, when traveling southbound, can be observed from some miles away as the highway takes dead aim at it, eventually passing it on its western flank. It is this hill, and a newly-built exit ramp on the northbound route that launches from the slow lane and describes a low, fast ellipse over the highway that is as beautiful as the sight of any bird in flight, that makes me hope as I wait in line for the bus that no two people ahead of me will also want the front row seats and the views that they afford.

I have seen the hill at virtually all times of day and night, and in all seasons, but the ever-changing ecology of the hill, and the ever-changing qualities of light and weather that dictate so much of how the hill appears, make me feel as though I see it anew each time.

When back-lit, the hill appears as a single uniform mass. It holds its own against the mass of the sky. If the light is such that the hill reads not as one mass, but as a series of interrelated masses—trees and boulders—the hill loses some of its unity and its mass becomes dwarfed by that of the sky. When the sky is clear its uniformity makes the hill small. When the sky is in flux, its hegemony is challenged. Thus the monumental proportions of the hill at dawn and at dusk, when its mass is stable against that of the rapidly changing sky.

What in three seasons appears as a mass of uniform density, the winter reveals as a hill covered by a blanket of trees. Light passes easily through this threadbare blanket, creating a diffuse halo along the edge where the forms of the hill and sky meet. Does this halo belong to the hill, or to the sky?

In drawing, this winter meeting of the hill and sky is referred to as a soft edge, as distinct from the hard-edged shape that the hill presents against the sky when its trees are in leaf. The small difference of experiencing the hill as alternatively soft- or hard-edged hints at a fundamental truth about how we see the world; our perception of an object is inseparable from our perception of the things around it. While my rational self tells me that my perception of light and color in the sky cannot affect the mass and shape of the hill, my perception tells me otherwise.

One factor profoundly modifies the experience of observing the hill through the windshield of the southbound bus: the windshield itself, a 6’ by 8’ rectangle of clear glass that frames the hill within its four edges.[i] The edges of the windshield function in the same manner as in a painter’s canvas; they limit the visual experience of the hill and the sky, creating boundaries within which the richness of experience can be processed more directly. Without edges (of the windshield and the canvas), there is no end to what the eye will take in. The properties of the hill—its colors, shape, form—are modified not only by the properties of the sky, but by the properties of the surrounding hills, the trees, the road, the cars, the bus driver and all the other objects that exist within one’s field of vision.

The view from the bus windshield speaks to an experience that painting can give us. It is not all-encompassing, yet within its four edges it presents a world in which colors can be meaningfully employed, proportions meaningfully judged, distances meaningfully articulated, and lights, darks, volumes and cavities and all the other things that make up the physical world meaningfully described. In its simplest and most fundamental form, the phenomenon of perception can be articulated by any figure against a ground; a hill and the sky, a bather and the sea, a flower in a garden, one shape against another. Thus a pair of crisp black figures wrestling on a red terra-cotta pot, a grid of wavering pencil lines incised into soft paint, an unspeakably beautiful sky blue horse, standing bridled and blanketed but riderless on a gold ground.

"A Stallion." Habiballah of Sava (active ca. 1590-1610). Metropolitan Museum of Art.




[i] The speed of the bus is a less profound modifier. Relative to objects close by the speed is paramount, but from the distance at which the hill first comes into view a few miles away, the speed is negligible. A few hundred yards of highway changes our perception of the miles-away hill in the same proportion as an inch of movement changes our perception of an object a few feet from our eyes. Perhaps this is why Cezanne’s still lifes contain as much space as his landscapes of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

Posted in: Essays