Book Review

On the first page of Cole Swensen’s Art in Time, her seventeenth book, I thrill to be reminded of Leslie Scalapino’s provocation in my first poetry class two decades ago. I had said something like “At last I am finding a way to write about landscape,” and she replied sharply, “You aren’t writing about landscape—you are landscape!” I had no idea what she meant. Swensen begins her book by looking out into a view at the edge of a valley and, for a split second, feeling “complete participation” in it, “an integral part of it . . . I wasn’t looking at it, I was it.”

An instant later, separation occurs, she is again just walking through the world—gone is “that fusion of seer and seen/scene.” In the work of the artists she writes about in the twenty lyric essays that follow, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, Sally Mann, Tacita Dean, and Joan Jonas, Swensen discovers “a vestige of that fusion” moment she imagines each artist tried to capture. She tracks how their works, “rather than standing back and looking at [the] world, instead participate in it, thus keeping something of the vital motion of the moment intact.”

The traces of fusion quicken her. They arrive on the page. I am alert to their liveliness. They propel her away from the usual art essay into a hybrid of prose and poetry, where language on the go, like light, signals a place where life is happening. I watch her attention to syntax—here, at the start of “Agnes Martin: Homage to Untitled Life”:

They are points. They float and dive. They point alive. They epitomize the inviolable nobility of the intransitive verb. They point into time.

And then, again and again, her writing slips out of a prose paragraph into motion, lineation, overflowing, as it does at the start of “Rosa Bonheur: Animals with Landscape”:

Ruskin compared her to a zookeeper.
All her life, she lived with the animals she painted—
            hares                horses              huge bulls                    the sun

Swensen tells us works like Bonheur’s are referred to as “paysages animés, animated landscapes, landscape as living being, as itself animal—implying that it breathes, seethes, is composed of systems, circulatory, nervous,” and then “nervous” jumps species on the page into the human: Bonheur had real lions “padding softly around the house and grounds, terrifying the guests.”

Changing subjectivities; relations accumulating and multiplying among land, people, animals, trees, weather; the hand reaching toward—the thrall of the collection is impressively constructed. Reader and author and artist and art collaborate in that “space . . . perfectly exactly filled out to its edges with the larger presence of breath,” “a wash of the thriving.” I stamp my foot in applause, write notes on the pages, distribute my thoughts; Swensen makes of “viewing” a muscular verb. As she says in her essay on Agnes Varda, “so something opens in space that one can hold.”

Or perhaps even live in: Varda built literal houses of her analogue film stock. “First, life-sized cabins . . . and then miniature ones: . . . Of La Pointe Courte, she made a small boat in which they did not sail away in light. Instead, light filters through the literal materiality of the film, thus filtering through the faces of the filmed, which in turn, are projected onto the face of the person living within.” As I write this, I sail away into light, am the filmed face and the person living within, feeling the projected images, participating in the work in present time.

Motions rise and rise in “Acsemic Cities,” Swensen’s essay on writer Renee Gladman’s ink drawings (composed of mostly illegible writing in lines). The drawings are “vertical cities, built of sheer ascension, ascending across great expanses.” Viewing them, what breaks through “in a crystalline accrual, . . . the tiniest bird,” becomes “an exploration of time,” she writes. Because by now, page 109 of Art in Time, we are open to the present tense of our experience extending, entering in a haptic trance these “graphic elaborations in which we, in turn, dwell in fluidity.”

What kind of dwelling is this, where are we arriving? Judith Butler’s words on relationality in “Violence, Mourning, Politics” move across my mind: “the thrall in which our relations with others holds us . . . One does not always stay intact.” Swensen writes of meandering in the drawings, in a city “that creates the we that we are . . . the throng of each body in relation to all others.” She ends the essay: “suddenly there were previously invisible structures still invisible, but now imbedded deeply within us. They climbed away inside of us.” We are permeable; as a reader I no longer mind where I, the writing, or the art start or end. As Butler writes, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

Swensen is using “we” as if her engagement with the art is shifting her language to, in philosopher Alva Noë’s words, “a kind of socially distributed cognition.” Consciousness doesn’t take place in isolation, or passively, he believes: “We spend all our lives embodied, environmentally situated, with others. We are not merely recipients of external influences, but are creatures built to receive influences that we ourselves enact; we are dynamically coupled with the world.” In this way, an artwork, a landscape, and my and your reading of this work extends, never ends.

The last essay is on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Running Fence,” twenty-five miles of white fabric, a project involving over four years many hundreds of people, including the fifty-nine ranchers on whose land it was erected. Swensen writes, “The four years of negotiation were above all about getting the agreement of the community, a community that the project built by bringing them all together around the work; in short, the community that was created by creating the art was a central element of that art; it didn’t make it—it was it.”

And what of the value of all this relationality, to a rancher, say? “I was driving by, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw flight fly. And I, too, used to fly, said the rancher with a new-born calf in his arms, for whole split-seconds.” No passive thing, then, this viewing. Rather, an undoing of a contained interior self, a super-relationality moving into play, taking ourselves outside ourselves, distributed—as Swensen mentioned in the book’s introduction, “viewer and view mutually constructing each other.”

About the Reviewer

Hazel White is the author of two poetry books, Vigilance Is No Orchard (Nightboat Books, 2018) and Peril as Architectural Enrichment (Kelsey St Press, 2011), and has written extensively on landscape, in books and magazines. She is an affiliate artist at Headlands Center for the Arts, Marin, California.