A Glimpse of the Sublime

I stumbled upon a section of Central Park recently that I had not known was there. The section is one of several unmanicured portions scattered throughout the park.

That was Friday, and it felt like the first real day of Spring for me. Forsythia had just started to come in and a few tall trees displayed bright red buds.

What really made it feel like Spring was the frenetic energy of the birds. In fact, the hustle and bustle in the park kept pace with the activity on nearby 59th street and 6th avenue. Bluejays seemed to be the most anxious of all the birds. The quaffed and beautiful cardinals moved with more deliberation. The elusive woodpecker–I saw only one–moved in a carefree, yet purposeful way.

I didn’t recognize the feeling watching the birds gave me until later that day when I was downtown at the Whitney Museum. I was standing in front of the painting Day One by Barnett Newman. The man on my listening device explained that much of Newman’s work, Day One especially, arouses feelings of the sublime such as you experience when looking at something in the natural world. Like Niagara Falls. Or General Sherman. Or a phalanx of colorful birds in midtown Manhattan.

I might not ever have stopped in front of the painting had I not been in the park earlier that day. It was my experience with the birds that prepared me for Newman’s piece. I had never examined Newman’s paintings closely in the past. I’d always been into his more accessible post-war cohorts such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. The subtlety and quiet intelligence of Newman had always escaped me.

My large unabridged (and rather unnecessary) dictionary defines the sublime as “that which is grand or awe-inspiring in nature or art.” It’s no coincidence that the term can be applied in the context of the arts and the natural world. Both the arts and the natural world are under perennial attack in our money-obsessed culture. Like me walking by Barnett Newman, much of what occurs in nature can easily be ignored. Perhaps what we’re losing is the ability to look.    



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