Maybe it had something to do with my footwear, but this time it was fireworks, what A. S. Byatt calls “the kick galvanic.” It reminded me that all of art rests in the gap between that which is aesthetically pleasing and that which truly captivates you. And that the tiniest thing can make the difference.
Optic Nerve is a generic hybrid: part memoir, or perhaps (as it’s subtitled “A Novel”) what we now call “auto-fiction”; part personal essays (or is that aspect intrinsic to the concept of auto-fiction?); part art history; part art criticism (or at any rate part commentary on art).
I had trouble, as a reader, unifying these parts. I found many–though not all–of the personal and family anecdotes interesting and most–though still not all–of the explorations of particular artists and their works engrossing and thought-provoking. I liked the surprises that so many of Gainza’s stories, about herself or about art, delivered; I liked the sense that we were wandering through a kind of gallery of her life that in its turn had doors that opened onto the lives of artists.
What I liked best was the way she showed me paintings. I frequently wished the book included color plates so I could see for myself, so that I could try looking at them through the lens of her writing. Happily, of course, having the internet at my fingertips made it easy to supplement the prose with the visuals, but it didn’t seem ideal to have to take my attention away from the book to do that. I wonder why it wasn’t possible to open each chapter with an illustration: would it have been too expensive – for the publisher and thus the potential purchasers of the book? or is there some way in which the book does not want us to do this?
What I didn’t like: Optic Nerve felt really miscellaneous. Its unifying force is Gainza herself, or the narrating version of her, I suppose, but I often found myself puzzled over what else bound together the specific elements she included in each chapter. Sometimes I could see it, or sense it (the chapter about her brother and El Greco, for instance, which turned on ideas about religion, and – I think – on tensions between ascetism and sensuality), but most of the time it seemed random. Was I not reading or thinking hard enough, or was that fragmentation deliberate? Maybe the idea was precisely to scatter our focus, or to reflect the ways our lives are not in fact neatly organized around common themes–or to match her commentary on art, which emphasizes that we should, or always do, feel first and think later. I would have liked a bit of guidance about this from the book itself.
Two chapters – or, really, two painters – made the strongest impression: they are the ones I couldn’t read more about without an image search. In both cases it was because of how Gainza wrote about their paintings. Here she is on Courbet’s The Stormy Sea (Mer orageuse):
A foamy roller breaks against rocks in the foreground; at the horizon, the sea and sky meld into one; and in the top half of the picture the sky is packed with bulging pinkish clouds. This oil on canvas from 1869 is close to one meter high and one meter wide, just right to hang on my chimney breast, if I had one. How lovely it would be to watch a fire burning beneath such a sea! Every time I look at it, something inside me becomes compressed, a sensation between my chest and my throat, like a small bite being taken out of me. I have learned to respect this twinge, to pay attention to it, because my body always works things out before I do. Only afterward does my intellect draw its conclusions.
Here is some of what she says about Rothko:
People say you have to approach a Rothko in the same way you approach a sunrise. The work has a clear beauty, but that beauty can be either sublime or decorative . . . Perhaps there is something spiritual in the experience of looking at a Rothko, but it’s the kind of spiritual that resists description: like seeing a glacier, or crossing a desert. Rarely do the inadequacies of language become so patently obvious. Standing before a Rothko, you might reach for something meaningful to say, only to end up talking nonsense. All you really want to say is “fuck me.”
One more sample, from the section on El Greco:
One winter’s night, an icy wind began to blow through his paintings. The space inside them grew constricted, and his figures, as if to adapt to these new climes, hollowed themselves out and lengthened upward.
Optic Nerve is not the kind of book I usually seek out, and the discomfort I felt with its form (or formlessness) confirmed my typical hesitation. I liked these passages (and others) so much, though, that reading this book also made me think I should overcome those hesitations more often–that I should take more reading risks. It’s true that some of my best reading experiences have been with books that are not at all, at least at first glance, my usual kind of thing (Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden, for example–I still don’t really understand why I felt such a strong compulsion to buy it!). On the other hand, my irritation when I take a risk and hate the result is immense! That perpetual struggle to weigh risk and reward is one reason the Rothko chapter affected me so much. His is exactly the kind of painting I ordinarily have no time for, but Gainza made me really want to look at it–she made me want to go to MOMA or the Tate and stare at the real thing, wish that I could have gone to the MFA in Boston to try their experiment in “seeking stillness.”
Maybe what I should really read is not more generically miscellaneous writing but more good art criticism–and yet what Optic Nerve proposes, or maybe proves, is that “good art criticism” is a function of the observer, that the optic nerve is part of the whole person. I may find the whole idea of auto-fiction both incoherent and solipsistic, but genre labels aside, in that respect at least Gainza’s book makes perfect sense.