I always meant to be a painter. It wasn’t until I was, Christ, maybe 15 that someone finally took the brush out of my hand and said, “Look, you’re spectacularly untalented and god knows it’s not for lack of vision,” and so it was probably three days later that I started making stories and poems about paintings instead of making paintings. I decided, well, if I can’t be Rothko then I’ll be O’Hara instead and I will write the living fuck out of that orange.
I like looking at a painting like Mark Rothko‘s Orange, Red, Yellow and telling a story about fires and a girl with hair the color of wheat. I like the fact that Rothko refused to yield to the specificity of language, and that I have to do the work for myself, make a room of my own meaning. (Ironically, this quiet painting by this quiet, unassuming painter—who hated the commodification of his work outside of artistic merit—has now become the “most expensive post-war work sold at auction.” It is a devastating and beautiful painting, and the almost holy light it exudes is so strangely at odds with the dollar signs now permanently stamped next to its name.)
My stories are heavily influenced by visual art, specifically abstract art, because I like making up my own stories. I don’t like to be told what’s happening, to be given the exact curve of a girl’s hip and the sharp scarlet edges of the fire in the foreground. And the abstraction of the world through color is my favorite way to tell stories through painting.
Example: Earlier this summer, when I was asked to write a short piece that would be given to a pair of visual artists as inspiration, I turned to a visual artist for my inspiration. I paid a visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and stood for a long time in front of Louise Nevelson‘s Sky Cathedral. The strong black sculpture is like some alien version of the heavens. Then I went home and wrote a piece that evoked, I hope, what Nevelson called “the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and the sea.” The visual artists then took that piece and made this series of videos, then I responded, and the whole thing went up on a gallery wall. It was a visual record of waving a middle finger in the face of the anxiety of influence.
Example: When Borges was going blind, he liked to paint yellow, because it was the color he could see best.
Example: Early silent film used tinting to achieve mood in certain scenes. Amber, lavender, red, and blue were commonly used. One of the stories in my collection, “The Effect of All This Light Upon You,” uses tinting to achieve mood in a story form instead, taking abstract colors and applying them over language to change the mood or meaning.
Example: William Gass said blue and green have the greatest emotional range, that there was nothing much you could do with yellows and reds. Maggie Nelson, of course, wrote a beautiful book entirely about blue, called Bluets. Blue is the color of the sky and the sea and also sadness; so I suppose it makes up more of our world than any other color. It’s my favorite color, and the dominant color in my favorite Basquiat painting, Untitled (Blue Airplane). A city is blue; there can be no other kind.
Example: According to The Greatest Theft in History, Hitler believed that modern art was made by “degenerates,” as he called them, racial inferiors who couldn’t see and therefore paint colors properly. When he came to power, he had over 16,000 works of modern art removed from museums in Germany. And more than six hundred of these paintings were selected for a public exhibit on Entartete Kunst, or Degenerate Art. The point of the exhibit was “to increase public revulsion for art that was presumably contaminating German culture. The exhibit was wildly popular and was seen by nearly three million viewers.”
Example: Nabokov had a kind of synesthesia in which numbers and letters are perceived as being attached to certain colors. He said, beautifully of course because he is Nabokov, that in “the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with ‘Rose Quartz’ in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.”
Example: The ancient Egyptians thought that gold was a sacred color, because it represented the brilliance of the sun. They believed the deities themselves had skin made of gold. They painted the walls with gold, and stuffed the tombs of kings with it to honor Ra, the sun god. I’m writing a story now about a golden temple, an idea I got from seeing an ancient Egyptian tomb decoration of a sun in the foreground and an eye in the background. Like the best art, to my mind, it seems to suggest that staring into the sun might be the best way we have of summoning something to worship. Or at least a hazy reflection, a burned-in corneal image, brutal and fleeting as the gods themselves.