Paintings in Place: Long Island

Posted on October 4, 2014


“The painter can do no more than construct an image; he must wait for this image to come to life for other people. When it does, the work of art will have united these separate lives; it will no longer exist in only one of them like a stubborn dream or a persistent delirium, nor will it exist only in space as a colored piece of canvas. It will dwell undivided in several minds, with a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition.”

-Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cezanne’s Doubt”

On the North Shore of Long Island, in a community whose name is tied to the area’s Gold Coast associations, in a tidy apartment above the garage of a large estate, a small oil painting of a landscape hangs above a north-facing window. The apartment is spare but well appointed, and one enters it by a small door on the east face of the garage, ascending a flight of stairs to the living space above. The large open room at the top of the stairs encompasses the living room and a dining area, each set off from an open kitchen by a wrap-around bar. Only the bedroom and bathroom are divided from this space as discrete rooms. Because of the tidiness of the space, and because in order to arrive there one must have driven, or have been driven, through the suburban landscape, it takes something of an adjustment to reconcile the interior world one has entered with the outdoors one has just left. This adjustment is further conditioned by the type and quality of the apartment’s furnishings, which are, to a T, elegant and well-made, of brass, heavy glass, dark hard woods and fine fabrics, and evocative of the particular domesticity of the time (a century ago now) in which they were built.

The objects that fill this space—furniture, rugs, books, paintings and photographs—announce interior as much as the physical reality of enclosure within four walls, a roof and floor do. Thus the painting, which plays its own part in the chorus of the interior: firstly, because by hanging on the wall it refers to and affirms the wall’s physical presence; secondly, because by hanging in a linen mat and carved wooden frame it announces its own decorative function; and thirdly, because by depicting the outdoors, it focuses one’s awareness on being indoors, further articulating the type of space in which it hangs.

Other artworks hang in the room: an oil portrait of a young woman in riding gear; a long horizontal lithograph of the layout of an early colonial town; some Japanese prints of women acting out various tasks; framed black and white family photographs. Each of these has pride of place over the small landscape, the height at which it is hung making it impossible to get close to. During the day it is hard to see because of the brightness of the light entering the window below it. In the evenings it catches little light from the lamps that otherwise illuminate the room.

Yet the painting does hang, so despite the difficulty of getting a good look at it, despite the seeming utilitarianism of its purpose (show the outside to accentuate the inside), despite its subordinate relationship to the other objects in the room, and despite its seemingly routine subject matter (in how many houses in this part of the world does just such a landscape hang?), it persists in being noticed for a certain quality that trumps the handicaps imposed upon it.

Executed on a small hard board, in all likelihood on a lightweight French easel that had been packed into the back of a car, and by all evidence in one shot, a morning or afternoon of painting (the light is indeterminate), it is in fact an excellent painting. The painting is not dated, but the artist was a friend of the owner, dating the painting to the 1950s or 60s. Its style, however, is not so narrowly of that time. It is of the twentieth century and the nineteenth and the eighteenth. Neither is it of a particular place. It is American and Italian and French. It is jewel-like and expansive. It is carefully considered yet completely alive. It is a flat design with a deep space, an articulation of light and shadow, a simultaneous exploration of the material qualities of paint and the material qualities of the visible world. I do not know a landscape painter today who would not be proud of that result of a day’s work.

A unique and beautiful object, it is the gift of its maker to those who have subsequently come across it. The painting, again: