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Mordechai Beck

Print from Maftir Yonah (The Book of Jonah), 1992, Etching and aquatint on hand made paper, called Abacus, produced for the edition by Izhar Neumann at the Tut-Neyar Paper Mill, Zichron Ya'akov, 215 x 185 mm- size of etching on page, David Moss (calligrapher) [California: Bet Alpha Editions, 1992], Mordechai Beck, David Moss © Bet Alpha Editions

Makoto Fujimura

Psalm 139: All Saints Princeton Liturgical Altarpiece Series (Diptych), 2020-21, Mineral pigments on canvas, 121.9 x 365.8 cm, All Saints Princeton Church Liturgical Panels, Lenten Season, ©2020MakotoFujimura

Agnes Martin

Happiness, 1999, Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm, Dia Art Foundation, New York; Partial gift, Lannan Foundation, 2013, 2013.014, © Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York; Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

The Way Everlasting

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

There is no getting away from God’s constant presence and penetrating knowledge. That reality dominates this psalm; it is the sum of the psalmist’s reality. But is this inescapability of God good news or bad, torment or encouragement? The psalm does not compel a single, unambiguous answer to this question, for it speaks to the devout reader in different and contrasting tones: humble awe at God’s inexhaustible knowledge of me; a sense of constraint, even frustration at the divine hand that ‘hem[s] me in’ (v.5); delighted wonder at my own created form; ‘perfect hatred’ (Psalm 139:22) of the enemies of God. We have chosen or created three works that evoke some of its tones; together they gesture toward the paradox of distinct moods that nonetheless merge with and emerge from each other. 

For one of us—Mako, when a young artist—Psalm 139 was a gateway into Scripture and faith. Indeed, it offers a rare depiction of God as artist, overseeing the gorgeous craftwork that happens in the womb: weaving, astonishingly intricate (v.15). Each of us is one of God’s creative thoughts, weighty and innumerable as sand (vv.17–18). Yet like sand, every grain is distinctive precisely in its brokenness. Our lives refract light, like the azurite paint applied here in dozens of layers. Thus, the diptych is a painted poem of light shining in darkness. The darkness does not disappear, nor even lose its depths. Rather, it becomes penetrable by God, like the psalmist’s own being: ‘Darkness is as light to you’ (Psalm 139:12).

The dark spot at the top of the left-hand panel is the genesis point for the painting. When Mako began, dripping water spontaneously pushed the dark paint out, creating a halo around it, and he followed its flow. The result is a meditation on mysteries hidden in a universe too vast for humans ever to know, and yet the luminous presence behind the mysteries is intimately involved with each of us. This is ludicrous, the laughable truth that makes life possible when darkness threatens to swallow us: ‘The night is as bright as the day’ (v.12).

In Mordechai Beck’s etching of Jonah ‘on the run’—fleeing from God—divine presence is palpable as looming, living darkness, like the ‘great wind’ [ruach] that God will soon ‘hurl’ at the sea to block his escape (Jonah 1:4). Beck portrays the prophet in a world that has been drastically simplified, like the psalmist’s world—reduced, or elevated, to the bare encounter with divine presence: ‘…you are there’ (Psalm 139:8). Yet at the moment Beck highlights, God’s immediacy is felt not as promise or radical possibility, but as sheer demand, unwelcome and likely not survivable.

By contrast, sheer possibility is what Agnes Martin’s pale canvas can seem to convey. The application of many dilute layers of softly coloured paint gives the surface a shimmer that responds to changing light conditions. Martin’s affinity for such luminous canvases has been called ‘her weapon of regeneration’ on behalf of art and the world itself, wielded against the stark denial evinced by the lightless work of some of her contemporaries (Fer 2015: 172–81).

Yet possibility is not mere fantasy. Two subtle but distinct lines are drawn firmly across the large canvas. They provide a place to ‘move along step by step’, as Martin described the life of the painter, as we grow in awareness of the realities of the human condition, which she identified simply as happiness (Popova n.d.).

A common Hebrew verb meaning ‘to wait in expectation/hope’, one which appears often in the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 27:1; 40:1—the NRSV translation of the verb in these lines as ‘wait patiently’ is misleading), is q-v-h, derived from the noun qav, denoting a straight line. To wait on God is to trace a line of possibility stretched taut between what God has already done and what God has yet to do. Moving along that line of possibility is the stable but not static condition of happiness as we can know it in this world. Our psalmist calls it ‘the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:24).

 

References

Fer, Briony. 2015. ‘Who’s Afraid of Triangles?’, in Agnes Martin, ed. by Frances Morris (Tate Modern: London)

Popova, Maria. 2020. ‘Beloved Artist Agnes Martin on Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness and How to Transcend It’, www.brainpickings.org [accessed 12 July 2021]

Next exhibition: Psalms 145