Tadasky "The Circle Reviewed: 1964 to 2012"
Sacred Circles And Sensate Colors: Tadasky’s Paintings
by Donald Kuspit
As a rule a mandala (dkyll ‘khor) is a strongly symmetrical diagram concentrated about a center; it is built up of concentric circles (‘khor) and, in most cases, squares possessing the same center (dkyll). In one text the center is said to correspond to nirvana and the circle to the world. Almost all mandalas familiar to us display one or more concentric circles in the center. About a round, central disk, in the middle or which there sits or stands a deity (sometimes with a partner), four, eight, or ten deities—occasionally six or twelve—are set in an additional circle.
…Among the plethora of mandala representations, there are a number in which the deities are only hinted at, for instance by their symbols (Samaya Mandala), by their seed syllables (Bija or Dharma Mandala), or by dots or small circles. Some mandalas may be completely empty, and these naturally demand greater powers of imagination.
Martin Brauen, Mandala: Sacred Circles in Tibetan Buddhism 1
The concentric system deploys itself around a fixed point. That reference is indispensable for any spatial statement we wish to make. But the concentric system rarely suffices to organize what we say and make because…our living space conforms to the Cartesian grid. We must combine the two systems. Together they serve our needs perfectly. The centric system supplies the midpoint, the reference point for every distance and the crossing for the grid’s central vertical and horizontal. And the grid system supplies the dimensions of up and down and left and right, indispensable for any description of human experience under the domain of gravity.
…The interaction between the two spatial systems generates formally the complexity of shape, color, and movement that our visual sense cherishes; and it represents symbolically the relation between the cosmic perfection of which any thing or creature possesses a little and the struggle between the downward pull and upward striving that marks the drama of our earthly behavior.
Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center 2
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Surveying the paintings of Tadasky (Tadasuke Kuwayama), one can’t help being struck by their increasing complication, and with that the increasing demands they place on perception and comprehension. Their radiant colors and geometrical structure seem at odds, however much the colors are contained within the structure. Its components—typically a series of concentric circles within a square, both fixed in place and autonomous however much the colors seem to “move” the circles, or at least move with them, even as the colors are moving in themselves—are also at odds, adding to the tension in the paintings. As Joe Houston writes, “one cannot help but attribute spiritual connotations to the mandala-like structures that have proliferated in his paintings since the early 1960s,”3 suggesting their covert, esoteric—“conceptual”—meaning, conveyed by, yet at odds with their geometry and colors, each perceptually implicated in the other. The mandala, with its concentric circles and sacred figures, is a contradiction in terms, and so are Tadasky’s mandala-like paintings, with their abstract geometry and vivid colors (mandalas are also often brightly colored). What is the inner relation between—the dialectical necessity that unites—the opposites? What is the concept that connects the concentric circles and the square, and, on the other hand, both of them and the colors, of Tadasky’s mandala-like paintings?
I will suggest that they have the same meaning as the traditional mandala, however modernist their terms. They may seem like pure paintings—entirely a matter of line (both curved and straight, as in C188, 1965, where the latter cuts through the former to section the circles) and color (sometimes with the light bursting out of it, as though to dazzle and overwhelm us, as in C200, 1965; sometimes with the light on the inside of the color, as though drawing us into its unexpected depths, however much it seems all surface, as in C177A, 1965)—that eschew the “excess” of figuration that Braque thought was responsible for the “decadence” of traditional art. But their synthesis of linear circles and pulsing colors, and the ingenious interplay of the colors—they “electrify” the circular line, to use Kandinsky’s term, whether the current of light that runs through it is strong or weak, glows with hard or soft light, or the light seems ambiguously incandescent and fluorescent—serves a subliminal spiritual purpose however much it seems to exist purely for aesthetic reasons.
“Squaring the circle”—uniting geometrical opposites—has been the mythical goal of mathematics since classical antiquity. To do so is to affirm the invisible mathematical structure of the visible cosmos. Its basic, unchanging, inner reality is mathematical. It is geometrically ordered and obeys mathematical laws. It is mathematically intelligible and perfect, however imperfect and unintelligible it may seem to the naked eye, relying on “first impressions”—immediate sensations—but the mind’s reflective eye can see its mathematical intelligibility and perfection. Reality is inherently geometrical, incidentally colorful, it was traditionally argued. But when light was split into a spectrum of colors that formed an intelligible system—when it was realized that colors were not arbitrarily given, however individually nuanced, but lawfully arranged—it came to be understood that, like geometrical forms, they obeyed universal mathematical laws, an idea embodied in the modern color wheel.
From Delaunay’s circular Simultaneous Disk paintings (1913) on—they often overtly referred to cosmic forms, such as the sun and the moon—the color wheel became the basis of color field painting, even when the circular disk was turned into a Suprematist-type square, as in Albers’s Homage to the Square paintings, 1950-59. Tadasky’s returns to its origins in Delaunay’s disks or tondos, adding more colors and complicating their relationship, and deepening the cosmic import of the geometrical forms. Tadasky’s paintings unite Delaunay’s disk and Albers’s square—placing the disk in the square he suggests the oneness of their dimensions however different their forms—but what makes their colorful geometry more spiritually significant than Delaunay’s and Albers’s is that they are conceptually mandalas as well as perceptually color wheels. In his hands, the color wheel becomes an abstract mandala, perceptually edifying and variegated and spiritually enlightening and focused at once, reminding us that perceptual edification—pure aesthetic experience, more pointedly what Ananda Coomaraswamy calls “aesthetic shock”4 — is the beginning of spiritual enlightenment. Whatever perceptual “high” Tadasky’s paintings afford, they demand prolonged meditation. The more perceptually “difficult” they become, the clearer their spiritual meaning. The more insistent their colors and circles, the more spiritual presence they have. For Tadasky, the science of color has a spiritual purpose. His spinning color wheels are spiritually transformative. If they were not—if they did not afford a spiritual experience, that is, if their colorful circles did not have a spiritual effect—they would be merely examples of what Mark Rosenthal dismissively called Greenbergian formal exercises.5 It is unfortunately the erroneous reductive way Donald Judd understood them.6 Stripped of its spiritual effect what Kandinsky called “great abstraction” becomes a sensuous narcotic. As he famously wrote, if “’pure’ art is not given to man for a special reason…to serve the development and refinement of the human soul…but exists only for art’s sake, [then] the bond between art and soul becomes half anaesthetized,” and finally severed.7 Kandinsky thought that colors symbolized feelings but could be made transcendentally pure, that is, they could convey and evoke what he called “superfine” spiritual feelings as distinct from “coarse” natural feelings. Colors are always affectively charged—directly register and communicate affect, and as strong or weak, obvious or subtle as it: Tadasky’s colors are strong and subtle simultaneously. In “American Type” abstract painting, as Greenberg called it, color became strictly “matter of fact” or “positivistic,” to use his terms. 8 But however purely “empirical”—another term he used—he recognized that it had “unconscious and preconscious [emotional] effect,” terms he borrowed from Freud’s topographic model of the psyche.
Post-Freudians have convincingly argued that there is a “spiritual unconscious” that re-integrates and sustains the self when it is on the verge of disintegrating, sometimes because it is overwhelmed by an “emotional storm.” Tadasky’s colors are held together in his concentric circles. The circle is the calm whole, the colors are its excited parts, and without the integrating circle the paintings would collapse into colorful chaos or incoherence—a sort of regressive Sturm und Drang of untamed color. When the circle is less emphatically delineated, so that its circumference blurs, the colors seem to vaporize, as J44, 1988 and J52, 1989 indicate. But however atmospherically elusive, Tadasky’s colors remain contained by the circle even as they sometimes form it, indicating that he never loses his spiritual grip on them, and self-containment. The core idea of pure color painting was stated by Apollinaire: “The simultaneity of colors through simultaneous contrasts and through all the (uneven) quantities that emanate from the colors, in accordance with the way they are expressed in the movement represented—this is the only reality one can construct through painting.” 9 If painting is only a matter of the quantitative distribution of simultaneously given contrasting colors, then it has lost spiritual quality. It has in effect lost its depth and soul, as Kandinsky suggested, betraying its potential for unconscious spiritual communication by becoming self-consciously “optical,” a label that has unfortunately stuck to Tadasky’s paintings, undermining not to say insulting their significance.
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From the beginning, as C143 and D126, both 1965 show, Tadasky worked with blue, red, and yellow, the primary colors, although D105, 1966 also uses the complementary color green, a mixture of blue and yellow. C177a, 1965 uses orange, purple, and black—the question of whether or not black is a color has haunted modern color painting since Matisse said it was and Kandinsky said it wasn’t—as well as two shades of green, and the usual red and yellow. The narrow spaces between the concentric circles in D204, 1966 are all blue, “highlighted” by the black that informs the circles, linking them with the surrounding black ground on which they appear. They seem embedded in it, even as they seem to arise from and recede into it simultaneously. From the inaugural start in 1965, the width of the bands have varied greatly, as C200 shows, making for an asymmetrical effect—suggesting a certain affinity with what Lucy Lippard called eccentric abstraction—however symmetrically repetitive the concentric bands. The tones of the colors also vary considerably. Looking at a Tadasky painting is like looking at the flattened underside of a psychedelically spinning top. The effect is dizzying—destabilizing—however stable the work as a whole looks. On one level, Tadasky’s paintings are superb examples of what Lawrence Alloway called systemic painting. On another they are spiritually hypnotic, as a mandala should be.
In E105, 1969 there is one broad, large blue circle with a luminous band running through it, adding to its concentricity. In E143, 1970 a central red circle with a spreading black circumference is set in a large circle with a red circumference. An amorphous blackness radiates from it—a dark inner aura that makes the circumference “outstanding.” Stunningly, in the 1970s, as G103 and G107 show, luminously pure white pervades the circle, and the center becomes a ring of concentric circles, all exquisitely colored and differentiated, while of the same width, concentrating the over-all harmony in itself. Even when the bands of color become dynamic striations, as in K131, 1998, they are geometrically contained. The rectangle is split down the middle, the line of the split forming a center. Pulsing dots of color pervade the work, concentrating around the center division. In M163, 2007 they form a broad circle surrounding a luminous inner circle. Its black center pulses with a few colors. In M107, M145, and M158, all 2008—all major, astonishing paintings—the interplay of pulsing colors and circular forms becomes more dramatic than ever. In two of the works the central circle is white, if lightly toned with gray or blue, and in the third black. In all three the pulsing circles mark or nuance circular bands, adding to the auratic effect. Aura—sometimes blindly radiant, as in N103, 2011, however dark its central circle—is the constant theme of Tadasky’s paintings, confirming their sacred character, for it is the aura that signals enlightenment in traditional mandalas.
A circle has a center, and Tadasky’s concentric circles auratically reverberate from the center. Sometimes the center is a large square, framed by a grand circle, as in J60, 1989. Sometimes the center is a circle, framed by a square, as in J44, 1988. In E140, 1970 a luminous small circle, surrounded by slightly less luminous faintly colored bands, is centered in a small square, set in a field of subtly colored circles, alternatingly blue and red and of different widths, all contained by the square canvas. The square represents the Cartesian grid system of “living space” we inhabit, to refer to the Arnheim epigraph, and the circle represents the centric system of the larger cosmos that seems uninhabitable, and in which we seem to exist alone. The two spatial systems interact, as Arnheim says, in Tadasky’s paintings, but also, ingeniously, they exchange roles, the square becoming grandly cosmic, the circle becoming the isolated earth, concentrically dividing it into living spaces of color—spaces in which color lives and in which our eyes can enjoy living. But, crucially, there is no sense of gravity or matter in Tadasky’s paintings: the abstract geometry floats in abstract space, conveying the unbounded “cosmic feeling”—rather than being bound by the material conditions the earth imposes on life—that Roger Fry thought the best abstract art conveys. Tadasky’s colors seem to lack mass, however densely concentrated they sometimes are, suggesting they represent energy free of the pull of gravity—cosmic energy. Once Tadasky abandons the rectangle format for the square format there is no up and down and left and right in his paintings, just as there is no up and down and left and right in the cosmos. There is no one way of orienting ourselves in the cosmos, just as there is no one way of orienting ourselves to an abstract painting of the cosmos. Greenberg argued that there is no one right way to look at a good abstract painting—you can turn it upside down or on its side and it will still look good, still have integrity—just as the cosmos looks “good and right” from any angle. Tadasky’s cosmic concentricity, merging the centrifugal and centripetal indistinguishably, has a flawless integrity. Sufficient unto themselves, any which way one looks at Tadasky’s abstract paintings fails to do them complete justice, however justified it may be.
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The center, whether large or small, colorful and illumined or darkened into blackness, is the “point” of the painting. The concentric circles inevitably bring us to the center even as our eye is instantaneously drawn to it. Our attention cannot avoid it, and dwells on it: there is nothing that concentrates consciousness like a center, perhaps even more than death, which is said to do so. Just as the center of the circle is equidistant from its circumference, so the center of the square is equidistant from its sides. Without the center there is no circle or square, and without the circle or square there is no center: Tadasky’s geometry exists to make the center self-evident. The center is inescapable, even though, ironically, the cosmos has no center, unless of course we think we are the center—a belief that continues to have its hold on our imaginations. What sharply differentiates Tadasky’s center-oriented paintings from the “constructions” of simultaneous contrasting colors that Apollinaire thought defined pure abstract painting is that the “constructions” lack a center. Even the Simultaneous Disk paintings of Delaunay that inspired Apollinaire’s theorizing have no marked center. A tondo necessarily has a center, but Delaunay is indifferent to it, obscuring it with painterly gestures, as though it was not worth our attention. Even his suns and moons are “decentered”—composites of colors patched together like ill-fitting pieces of a puzzle to form a nominally cosmic object (not exactly seamless “constructions,” as their imperfect geometric forms shows). Apollinaire’s pure painting is a field of color with no “clarifying” center, unlike Tadasky’s mandalas, which always have a center—a “place” of spiritual enlightenment in the colorful cosmos, the inner sanctum of a geometrical sanctuary, oddly “otherworldly” for all the “this-worldliness” of its colors, although colors “derive” from otherworldly light.
“The square in the mandala is none other than a building or the ground plan” of a palatial temple, Brauen tells us 10 — the temple-palace of the Buddha, an epithet that means “Awakened One.” The Buddha resides in “the innermost sacral area” of the square. It is the place of awakening. The small circle framed in the small square—geometrical gods, as it were, that “partner” to form a double center—of Tadasky’s E140, 1970 symbolizes the innermost sacral area and the square symbolizes the ground plan of the cosmic temple-palace. More often the inner sacral area is a large circle that is the centerpiece of the “ground plan” of the square canvas. For Tadasky they are pure abstractions, suggesting the truth of Brauen’s remark that “the whole cosmos” becomes a mandala “when the entire purified universe is mentally offered in a specific ritual.” 11 The mandala is a physical device used in a purifying ritual of mental awakening. Tadasky makes his mandalas with a ritual deliberateness—spins them in an “altered state of consciousness,” as it has been called, a sort of hypnotic state induced by, or at least convergent with, the spinning of the platform on which he makes them.
The mandala is meant to be contemplated—with a constancy and intensity as great as its own. Seriously contemplating the mandala, one “awakens”—one’s consciousness is “altered.” To what end? The mandala’s pattern is enlivened—dramatized—by its colors. But the colors, however much they “awaken” our eyes—however conscious of them we become—are only one means to the end of opening our mind’s eye, implicitly the center of the circular pattern. Eye to eye with the center, amplified by the concentric circles that lead us towards it—it is the “pupil” in the eye that is the mandala—our mind comes to “see” the “truth” about existence. We awaken from what the Buddhists call “the dream known as the waking life of created beings.” No longer “enwrapped in the womb of sleep”—no longer unconscious—we consciously “experience the bliss of the Awakening,” liberating us from “Desire and Death” (Kama-Mara). Meditating on Tadasky’s mandalas—mandalas for modern “scientific” eyes, which are accustomed to seeing the world abstractly and analytically—we remain as “immovable in introversion” as the historical Buddha had to be to discover the “Four Noble Truths.” I am arguing that Tadasky’s mandalas offer us a way out of the “suffering” caused by “ignorant craving”—acknowledging the existential inevitability of the former and its all-too-human cause are the first and second noble truths. The third truth states that a “cure” is possible, and the fourth truth “prescribes the way, the “Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Mindfulness, and Right Contemplation.” 12 Painting mandalas is Tadasky’s way of following the Noble Eightfold Path.
A final word about the circles and colors. The circles are symbols of the gods and Bodhisattvas that concentrically surround and protect the Buddha in traditional mandalas. The gods and Bodhisattvas are generally more colorful than the Buddha, for they are less “en-lightened”—conscious of the Four Noble Truths—although the Bodhisattvas have “postponed their own enlightenment to help believers achieve salvation,”13 which is why they are more colorful, that is, bound to the earth. But it is worth noting that the luminous red in many of Tadasky’s mandalas is a traditional symbol of salvation. It may represent burning desire but it is desire contained in a circle, and so mastered if not transcended. It seems that conflict informs the color for Tadasky, and, more broadly, his paintings, which resolve the conflict between the symbolic mandala wheel 14 and the scientific color wheel while signaling it. The hermetic serenity of Tadasky’s mandala paintings is fraught with ambiguous meaning even as it announces that Buddhahood is possible in the ignoble modern world.
1 Martin Brauen, Mandala: Sacred Circles in Tibetan Buddhism (New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2009), 11, 13
2 Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1982), ix, x
3 Joe Houston, “Always of the Moment,” Four Optic Visionaries (New York: Wigmore Fine Art, 2008; exhibition catalogue), 7
4 Coomaraswamy argues that works of art must “aesthetically shock” us to existentially enlighten us, that is, to change our consciousness of existence and with that transform our sense of self. “Samvega: Aesthetic Shock,” Selected Papers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), I, 182. For Kandinsky, pure abstract art was more aesthetically shocking than representational art, and thus more spiritually significant and transformative.
5 Rosenthal argues that abstraction dead-ends in empty formalism, that is, becomes a “rarefied style” rather than a “useful method form of expressing all sorts of ideas.” Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1996; exhibition catalogue), 236
6 Donald Judd, “Tadasky Kuwayama,” Complete Writings 1959-1975 (Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975), 162-63
7 Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Spiritual in Art” , Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994) 212
8 As Greenberg famously wrote, “positivism or ‘materialism’” has been the “center of gravity” of modern painting since Courbet. Positivist painting involves the pursuit of “immediate sensation” and a correlative “drastic reduction of the associations bound up with the visual act,” in effect rendering it soulless or spiritless. “The School of Paris,” Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 120.
9 Guillaume Apollinaire, “Reality, Pure Painting” , The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, ed. Arthur A. Cohen (New York: Viking Press, 1978), 92
10 Brauen, 16
11 Ibid., 25
12 For an analysis of Buddhism see Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (New York: Pantheon, 1951), 465-69
13 Yukio Lippit, Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird and Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchu (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2012; catalogue essay), 127
14 Among other meanings, the circle symbolizes the so-called Law of the Wheel, that is, “the ever-renewed cosmogony of the coming into existence of the universe and its disappearance again.” Zimmer, 557. Tadasky’s abstract icons can also be said to involve “right perception of sunyata (‘the void’),” from which “comes bija (‘the [creative] seed’). From bija the conception of an icon is developed,” icon meaning “mental representation,” and “from that conception is derived the external representation of the icon,” that is, the mandala. Zimmer, 556. Tadasky’s pulsing colors—the dots of meteoric color that proliferate in his late paintings—can be understood as the creative seeds from which the icon germinates out of the cosmic void.