Kirk Varnadoe

October 21, 2021- Ankara Lecture American Embassy

As the late Kirk Varnadoe implied at the last Mellon lecture he delivered at the National Gallery of Art, “ it is through an act of faith in the importance of our own experiences and perceptions that we create art.” – Spring/2003

I would like to spend some time speaking to you about Oleg Grabar, a scholar of Islamic Art who wrote an important book called The Mediation of Ornament, based on the lecture series he also gave at the National Gallery of Art , and had a profound influence on the development of my own work. I felt I had found a scholar whose work I found very compelling. 

From the Mediation of Ornament Grabar writes “ when Chinese writers talk about writing, their imagery does not dwell on proportions or purity of line, but on life forces, on the storage of energy. It is as though the making and the viewing serve to release the living and active forces of nature.”

If you look closely at the image on the left, Hazine, a 15th century Iranian Manuscript and the image on the right, Broadway  Boogie Woogy,  by the Dutch artist, Mondrian. Grabar states that he juxtaposes these two images as a way to support his belief that there are universal approaches to visual behavior based on universal values.

A quote from the Southern literary writer, William Faulkner states, “ the aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again, since it is life”. 

So here you have a manuscript over 500 years old and a modern painting from over 70 years ago, and they both have this uncanny relationship to the act of seeing, the encounter with works of art. What I find particularly interesting about these two works of art is how the image extends to the edges that evokes a feeling of the infinite, of consciousness expanding, while also feeling contained. Viewing these paintings can go beyond time and cultural context, and beyond politics and ideology. For me, that’s the power of these works.


Kansas City

June 2022

I have always been interested in music. While attending the Kansa City Art Institute I was able to hear some of the greatest jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus. He was dressed in black and his presence evoked his power as a great artist. He played his instrument where a magical transformation could be heard. 

This was one of the most profound musical moments I have had in experiencing sound through my senses. When I first encountered the Sun Ra Arkestra, all the musicians were playing their instruments at the same time that created this cacophony of sound, where I felt elated. It was as if I was always waiting for this moment. It was both familiar and strange. 

I asked myself whether a painting through color could also raise the vibration for the viewer. How many people have had the experience of looking at works of art and not knowing what they mean? Does this distract you from looking and you just move on? I feel that those works that we find compelling is what we choose to stand before, trying to comprehend on some level through the sensations of the body. What I am describing is experiential seeing. 



  • Mbuti – paintings by Pygmy women of the Ituri Forest
  • The sound of the forest through yodeling of vowels
  • Language going back to the Nile – 3500 B.C.
  • Aramaic 
  • Gees bend
  • Sound of gospel, spirituals
  • The incantations, the timbre 
  • Morton Feldman said the mourners Kaddish for Philip Guston
  • The incantations
  • The music
  • The vibration
  • The hope of possibilities
  • Abstraction is about nothing
  • And everything

Horoshi Doi

The continuous search for the unseen is found in the Japanese practice of Reiki, a technique for accessing the ‘life force energy of the body.’ In this practice the hands are the conduit that connects what Reiki Master Horoshi Doi calls Hado, a word for wave energy.

As Horoshi Doi comments, “ the consciousness and the rhythm of the earth are programmed into the human body and constantly influence human life. For instance, the breathing rates for humans is eighteen times per minute which is the same as the ocean waves.”

I completed Reiki Master training in 2013. I learned how my hands could become a conduit for energy to flow.  

I believe the creative process taps into the unknowable truths that surround us. Like the circulatory system, blood flow, lymphatic system and the flow of water we experience in rivers and streams. All that is movement is energy.

The experience of viewing the Marina Abramović’ installation at the Jerusalem Biennale 2018

There she created a video screen with a huge grid where each square was filled with individual recordings of Tibetan Monks and Nuns chanting the Heart Sutra. The cacophony of sound expressed energy, hence the artist called it Waterfall. Because when Abramovic’ closed her eyes and listened, it sounded like flowing water.

The encounter of viewing a work of art can be a very powerful experience that involves all the senses, depending on how open and vulnerable one allows themselves to be as the viewer. By simply looking one can be open to the unknown possibilities that seeing can afford. An authentic experience in seeing is going beyond one’s sense of perception to a heightened  consciousness that is activated through this experience of observing and feeling through the senses.

The Octopus has three hearts, and its blood is blue.

A drop of blood equals a raindrop.

Werner Herzog, ‘The Twilight World’

the heart of a hummingbird beats twenty times a second, twelve hundred times a minute.”


Fluidity of time

Notes from lecture / American Embassy / Ankara

What most interests me is the fluidity of time and how the present moment can be expressed within the formal structure of the painting. Because simply put, right there on the canvas is where my thought and materials reach their deepest level of engagement with the natural rhythms around us, and the energies of the body.

The process of painting for me is always one of change. Everything that takes place on the surface is in the act of flux, shifting and thus activating the surface. 

The issue is not what to paint, but how to paint according to how I am wired — my neurology.

So the question is how to make meaning. How far can painting be pushed? How can something that is just paint become so much more than an inert material on a two dimensional surface that extends two and a half inches from the wall? How can a Painting be optical and an object at the same time?

The musician Yo Yo Ma once stated that while interpreting the music of Bach, he was searching for the DNA of the piece, of the structure. 

I find there is an underlying pattern and structure to all things inherent in nature. I observe the murmuration of birds in flight, and the instant shutter of a camera as marking time’s unfolding presence. My eyes adjust to these slipping glimpses, the arbitrary nature of seeing where the inability to hold this data all at once becomes the totality of my experiences, something I need to sustain through painting. Painting becomes language when it starts building associations one feels in the body, of relationships while painting. How we touch things, how we relate with other people, our relationships. As I paint, these feelings come up. How can I have two colors touch or not touch. Emotion is stimulated by color and how I touch the paint. 

One pursues visual ecstasy out of deep necessity.


Experiential light on the horizon

Experiencing light on the horizon poses fundamental questions. Science is a rational explanation whereas the experiential conveys the infinite possibilities, including the magical. 

The horizon can be confusing like the light at dusk. Ambiguity of heaven and earth. Of moving between one realm of consciousness to another. This is what happens when painting. The deeper one goes the more palpable is the feeling.

Earth follows heaven
The human body follows the earth
The mother of 10,000 things
1,000 kisses deep

The four directions

One can see beauty only because of ugliness

Hold fast to the center
cool light of the moon 
the sun is laughing.


My dream – December 5, 2014

I am in Washington and the colors are grey and have a film over them. I see an orange Gerber daisy and the color is so clear and so intense. I say to myself that is what I want in the painting.

Reading Patrick Modiano and seeing the photographs of Robert Capa brings up loneliness and the absence of color. The grey gradations of shadow are the residue of Occupation and War.


Olga Tokarczuk 

A form based on fragments – Poland – national borders have changed over and over through the centuries – where multiple ethnic groups Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians, and Jews, have lived side by side in a cacophony of languages and experience.

I am reminded of when I first heard the Sun Ra Arkestra perform.

Central European history — Olga Tokarczuk
“questions reality more. It’s more distrustful of permanent things.”

In ‘Flights’ a character says,
“Constellation, not sequencing carries the truth.”

“It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates is; it binds the galaxy together.”
— Jedi Master Obo – Wan Konobi



Painting is a rational progression of irrational thought. We have our biological age that is different from our painting age. 

The power is in the paint
The energy
The image becomes a portal to hold the energy

Perception is not necessarily truth. We have seen that a lot in this country. But perception can be very powerful and even dangerous. The idea that you can have free thought and choice in a Democracy is something we no longer can take for granted. It is all threatened. 

A note of color and it’s relationship can become a heightened feeling. 

The line is like a vein that conveys a living pulse.
The geometric construct of a line is a mathematical abstraction, whereas in nature there are no straight lines.
The cumulative layers of a painting while using an underlying geometric construct play against the intuitive meandering of the body that convey a living pulse. 

I had a background originally in ceramics with a focus on high temperature porcelain influenced from China and Japan, along with the influence of Korean tea bowls. I learned that Korean tea bowls were warped because they would place the wet clay bowls in the sun to dry – that the irregular shape was not a form of mannerism but rather necessity – how awkwardness expresses truth.  


Red Square — Memory

Russian word (krasnaya) – can mean either red or beautiful.

The paintings become like bodies imbued with feelings of the collective group – peasants – Russia. The form is the collective, the content, the body.

The Red Army stopped at Rovno, where my father was born.

Red Army – Babel – between two worlds. My father lived between two worlds.

Red Calvary – channel in the energy between two worlds – survival and existence.

Issac Babel – from Hannah Krall -when in the synagogue,

Everything is white and plain to the point of asceticism, everything is fleshless, bloodless, to a grotesque degree. You have to have the soul of a Jew to sense what it means. But what does the soul consist of? Can it be that ours is the century in which they perish?”– what is the intention?

The gesture of a body is not perfect.

Each painting is like a character in a novel.

David Grossman is reading from a novel on the radio, that is being broadcast on a bus that he is riding. He looks around him and no one is paying attention. He is speaking about an extra pedal on the sewing machine, so that the woman who is sewing can reach the pedal. The image is used to convey empathy. What is it like to be in another person’s body.

Can a painting be like fiction?

I kept seeing men with no legs for a few months, outside the subway where Joshua Bell was playing the violin.

It brought up feelings of power / powerlessness.

The interior of the other.

Helene Herzbrun talked to me about the idea of invention rather than just seeing reality, at the only meeting we had about my thesis paintings before she went into the hospital and died from a brain tumor. I took this to mean later on, that which cannot be seen, but experienced. I was told that when they did a scan of her brain, she was much younger than her chronological age.

My mother told me when I was growing up, that when I complained of boredom, there was no such thing, since I could use my imagination. She took me to the Rothko room at the Philips when I was 15. My mother told me to not speak, but rather take in the sensations of color. When my son was 5, I took him to the National Gallery, and lost him. I found him sitting on the floor underneath the Rothko’s looking up. It was then that I realized that was the way to see Rothko.

I had to figure out how to get the crash – the fusion – so there is no theory – just the poetics of space, color and emotion. The structure of a painting allows the process to remain open –

 Narrow Road to The Interior – Basho.

David Grossman referring to his book, Falling Out Of Time

“only in art can life and death meet”

Art can touch beyond what is real – beyond what is visible