What are you leaving out?
January 24, 2014
I'm laptopping you from bed in Chelsea, New York City. It's minus 14, and out the window a horizontal snow-gust slaps a lone cyclist
and his basket-Corgi. He takes all the block dogs out on all the worst days - six short legs and two round parkas on two wheels cutting into the white.
In preparation for Friday's session to master some recordings, I'm giving some thought to omission. "Don't play what's there, play what's not there," said Miles Davis. The snow quiets this place, absorbing sound and pacing the Yellow Cabs, caked this morning with last night's powder. This island of 2 million inhabitants stills with the freeze-up. From bed, the languid summer days on another island - at Hollyhock on Cortes Island - are a dream. Now is the time to recall the discoveries made there; painting with minimal strokes, perfect in their imperfection, not one mark unessential.
"The secret to being a bore," said Voltaire, "is to tell everything." In painting, it's what you don't describe that makes what is described so poignant. In human biology, the Reticular Activating System is the part of the brain that helps us become awake and to filter sources of arousal. In other words, we can be alert only to a certain amount of information at any given moment. In the case of art, we allow ourselves to surrender to a set of sensory cues and let the rest of the world fall away. Artists may naturally possess filtering abilities but, if not, we can surely learn to curate the signals we invite in and the marks we choose to make.
"Silence is a source of great strength", said Lao Tzu. The purge-attack on unessential strokes, notes, beats, and words is a lifelong pursuit. What is our message, and how might we deliver it with the least possible clutter? Buttoning my coat, my neck is over-protected with scarf, collar and storm flaps. And out in the cold I need to quiet my noisy nose-drip sniffs. But here on 20th Street, a quilt of white drapes the garbage and puddles, sandwich boards, parked cars, and the headquarters of the 10th Precinct. With nothing but breath in the air, New York plays her own, prolonged fermata.
PS: "I always listen to what I can leave out." (Miles Davis)
Esoterica: Leaving out and putting in are equally important discoveries to be made and mastered in painting and beyond. In a Transport For London cycling safety ad, viewers are invited to count the number of passes made by a group of basket-ballers in a gym. But there's a caveat. How we fare at focus and filtering might offer a clue to our potential as our own best editors. We've put the ad at the top, and you're invited to report your results and join our conversation below. And please, please. Watch out for cyclists.