An Occasional Post on Art that Thrills Me
The other day during my stay in Santa Fe, I stumbled upon Max Cole. She’s a minimalist artist, originally from Kansas, whose work was being shown in tandem with the work of Constance Dejong at Charlotte Jackson Fine Arts. When I entered the gallery I had no idea that I was just in time for a talk by the two women. I stayed for it, luckily getting a front row seat. And as I left the gallery, I found myself crying because I was so moved by their work. I took notes on their talks, and I want to write about Max Cole here.
Max Cole in her late 70s and has cropped, no-fuss gray hair which seems to convey that she’s not at all concerned about impressing people. She’s nearly deaf and frequently apologies for perhaps misunderstanding questions. Cole got her MFA at University of Arizona, Tucson; then spent twelve years mostly in solitude in Los Angeles; and in the 1970s, she was in LACMA’s New Abstract Paintings exhibit. Subsequently, she lived in New York City; Woodstock, NY; and then went back to California, where she lives now.
She works in white, gray, and black. Renoir, she says, declared that “black is the queen of color.” Very early on in her art career, she eliminated color in her work because of its psychological associations, she tells us: she not interested in emotions. What she honors is the “golden rectangle.” And in this show, the Greek Cross.
The press release for the show describes the show pieces thus: “Each canvas is painstakingly composed of horizontal and vertical lines and bands. The Verticals consist of fine rows of hand-drawn lines. Layer upon layer of paint creates a raised eggshell smooth surface… .The longer one spends quietly contemplating a piece by Max Cole, the deeper one sinks into the lines, between the color tones, until finally the painting itself seems to open up, breathe, and the view is brought to a still point of balance between the painting and what lies beyond it.”
For me, Max Cole’s work that evokes the holy. Following the ideas of Kazimir Malevich, she holds that mysticism is the basis of her art. It “articulates a field of energy outside the traditional concepts of design….Spirituality,” she says, “requires the setting aside of ego and emotion, which are superficial aspects” of the human being. Instead it is only a sense of humility that allows one to approach infinity.
“Real art,” she said, “has no pretense…. It tries to provide opening into insight.” Art, she believes, is non-verbal, felt, sensed, and not easily intellectualized. It requires authenticity, something of the inner life that cannot be defined. “If I find answers, I am no longer an artist.”
But why and how that works in her work baffles me. Is that because of the perfect equilibrium of the square? or the exactitude and perfection of each line? or the complexity when captures in apparent simplicity? or the use of the cross image (though not the crucifix)?
She lives like a monk, she discloses, and disappears from her social circle for weeks at a time to make her art. She cannot work if there’s conflict in her life: “To make a piece that works, I have to be at peace….I can tell a work that works, when it lives.” She does not go by a schedule—but works until she’s tired, then rests, and works again. She almost never allows someone in her studio, for another person’s energy affects the work. She says the question of how much time it takes for her to complete a work is totally irrelevant. She works until a piece is finished: “The test is when an image lingers in the subconscious, then communication has occurred.”
Max Cole is apparently better known in Europe than in the US. She told a story of how a piece of her work somehow ended up in the Vatican. “Work needs to find its own way in the world,” she says. “Things flow of their own volition…As long as I make no compromises, I know support arises for my work.”
Unfortunately, I did not take any pictures specifically of her work at the show. I felt the gallery wouldn’t like that. So the best I can do is take a picture of announcement card I picked up. The piece is called “Greek Cross Series 3, 2015” with acrylic and acrylic washes on rag paper.
Oh, I’d like to own one of her pieces!