Art Origins: My life as a half-blind art critic

Abbott Meader, Colby professor, pieces from the 1970's.
Abbott Meader, Colby professor, pieces from the 1970's.

By Daniel Kany

When I was four years old, I wound up with a steak knife in my eye. I had more than 20 stitches on my cornea and I spent two weeks in the hospital, during much of which, I had patches covering both of my eyes. The damage was severe. To keep my optic nerve from atrophying, the doctors tried contact lenses, which, in the early 1970s, were hard plastic and not much fun for a wriggly little boy.

I feel very lucky that my left eye tracks reasonably well with the right one. But for all intents and purposes, I only see out of my right eye. My left eye works, but in such a blurry and useless way that my midbrain disregards it. I cannot see stereoscopically.

My brother and sister are older than me and they are superior athletes. My sister is a world champion rugger and both were the stars of essentially every sports team they were ever on. That would not be my path. The vision issue was only part of it: I lacked their natural ability. I play soccer and excel at ping pong, but, as a youth, I quickly got tired of letting down coaches excited about “another Kany!”

Monocular vision is a handicap, but it does offer a few benefits. Television, movies, and photography, for example, are made with a single lens and one of painting’s great triumphs was the invention of single point perspective. I can’t say that these things are more satisfying to me than to two-eyed folks, but since they match my typical experience of the world, I suspect they are. Paintings work hard to convince viewers of depth by means of modeling, atmospheric perspective, etc; and so, from time to time, paintings appear to me with more depth than the real world, at least, from a stationary perspective.

Rather than trying to keep up with my siblings in the athletic arena, I took up music. I began playing bass in rock bands when I was in eighth grade. That was in Waterville, home of Colby College and its vaunted art museum. One day when I walked into Bixler — Colby’s music and art building — I looked up a staircase and saw a painting by Abbott Meader on the wall on the landing. I was in high school, but that painting appeared to me as a vision and it was immediately etched into my mind. It is not an easy painting to describe. It is an abstract landscape, highly controlled and focused. Across the top is a horizontal band that looks like a view of a road through Southwest farm landscape (green field on the left and fallow straw on the right) seen through ski goggles from a motorcycle. Shooting forward to that visual horizon is a series of colored lines that gathers thickly at the bottom of the image and converges towards the top. Pink horizontal bands flow into the scene from the right to reinforce the idea of landscape, but on the left side they billow like drapery or even a ghostly figure. That painting struck me immediately as both visually and spiritually transcendent. That was 1982.

Abbott Meader, Nike / Western Sundown, acrylic on canvas, 1972, photo by the artist.

(N.B. I sent this above description of the painting to the artist and it was enough for him to recognize the painting and send me the image included with this text.)

I hadn’t found painting. It had found me. I began to make art somewhat seriously, but I was more interested in seeing and learning about art. At Bowdoin College I studied art history — but not painting. (I now cringe at my rationale: When asked by a friend why I didn’t take painting classes at Bowdoin, I replied: “I don’t need anyone to teach me how to express myself.” Ouch.)  I went to Paris and studied art history at the Sorbonne. While in Europe, I wandered into the Rothko room in the Tate Gallery and had what is probably most commonly called a mystical experience with one of Rothko’s, Red on Maroon (1959).

Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959, image courtesy WikiCommons.

The thing about this kind of experience is its fundamental undeniability. It happened. And it was powerful. And indeed, the easiest way to understand or talk about such experiences is in the traditional terms of mysticism. I can see how when someone would mention this kind of experience to others, they would then easily accept it as proof of “God”. This type of experience is profound and personal, however vague, so it makes sense that people would generally see it as reinforcement of their own cosmology.

Not surprisingly, I have long been drawn to artists who produce such work and who are not caught up in specific religious dogma. My favorite artists have long included Kasimir Malevich, Rothko, Matisse, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt as well as landscape painters with a propensity for bold colors, such as the Fauves (particularly Braque and Derain), Kandinsky, van Gogh, Cézanne, and the German Expressionists. On one hand, I would like to believe my taste has become more refined after 35 years of looking. Maybe it has, but considering my favorite works in the light of my first transcendent art experience — that semi-psychedelic Meader landscape at Colby — I am not so sure it has.

What has been consistent for me is the transportive experience of art. (Transcendence and being transported aren’t the same thing, but they have much in common.) I think we can see this in the movement from artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian from landscape into abstraction. I like to explain the invention of abstraction as the realization by artists that when it comes to legibility, instead of having the viewer need to recognize a legible subject of the painting (that thing, that person, that place, etc), it is enough that the painting be recognized  (i.e., legible) as a painting. That is similar to the move from transportive to transcendent.

What I struggle with is akin to the idea that stereoscopic vision sees a physical world while monocular vision sees a visual world. I can’t remember what it was like to see stereoscopically and my closest art friend during all this time — a fellow Colby brat and career art professional — also had eye issues and so could not see stereoscopically. However bizarre and unlikely that may be and however much that might have tainted our ability to understand the vision of others, I don’t think it was by chance that we both have remained steadfastly dedicated to professions in the arts as well as huge fans of painting and visual art in general.

I do not like the scene from Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 silent surrealist short film by Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí. (Spoiler Alert: That straight razor slashes open her eye. Ouch.)

Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí were absolutely sick, and yet I love this movie…

There is a cliché of a movie director making a square with their thumbs and forefingers and squinting to look through it with one eye. We all understand that: They’re trying to see a scene as ifit were being filmed. What they are doing, however, is orienting themselves to see the scene monocularly. I believe painters do this all the time: They stand directly in front of their work and view it from a fixed point. (And unlike hearing, seeing is based on the dominant eye and backed up by the other.)  So, yeah, y’all two-eyed folks can do it, and you often do it on purpose. But some of us—fortunately few (hardly the fortunate few) — can only see the world that way.

Let me be clear: Taking a knife to the eye was a nightmare. (I can still remember the feeling from 48 years ago and it was hellish.) But it does make me wonder if I would have found this enriching life in the arts if I hadn’t mangled myself. I am not glad it happened. But I can say I would much rather be a half-blind art critic than a mediocre athlete.