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“William Kienbusch’s Ahab: A ‘Nonobjective’ Aesthetic” W Y N KELLEY Massachusetts Institute of Technology ‘or admirers of Moby-Dick, the painting Ahab (1966) by American Abstract Expressionist William Kienbusch (1914-80) seems luminous with beauty and significance. (See fig. 1.)The eye is compelled toward the mysterious white mass looming from, or perhaps receding into its medium . Is it facing us or going away, head or tail? The cerulean blues undulate peacefully but also energetically about the center. It’s a watery world, but also one built on a strangely fluid grid, providing a structure for that shimmering whiteness, almost as if we were seeing books in a case, or a blank page framed on a gallery wall. Forceful lines mark the canvas almost calligraphically,suggesting a formal language enclosing the central whiteness. Yet at the same time, graceful, sinuous brush strokes imply natural beauty along with form. The painting oscillates between surface and depth, meaning and mystery. What is it? the painting forces us to ask. What are we seeing? As a Melville reader, I am not accustomed to being asked to see this book, or one of its central characters, or a symbolicrepresentation of that character . The beauty of Kienbuschs painting isolates seeing as a distinct response, at the same time that the title Ahab refers explicitly to reading Melville’s novel. This bifocal perception, a splitting of vision, creates a singularly complex effect. Without the title, we lose our way in a visual and emotional experience -a bewildering subjectivity.Knowing the title, on the other hand, rescues our objectivity,givingus the idea that we know the picture and can read it successfully . This balance between seeing and reading, between subjective and objective perception, is characteristic of Kienbuschs aesthetic. In a 1966 letter to Stanley Clifford, he called it “nonobjective,”a mysterious and loaded term that I have seen nowhere else in his writing.’ It is difficult to tell from this one reference what he meant to say about the painting. But from his other writing -letters, interviews, markings of his Melville texts-one can speculate that his Ahab is an attempt to balance the ambiguities of Melville’s book. That achievement was neither subjert_-Tenor objective but something else, something he called “nonobjective.” Critics of Kienbusch’s painting have certainly perceived the dualities in Ahab. Elizabeth Schultz sees the whiteness as “emblematic of either the soli- ’William Kienbusch to Stanley Clifford,July 27, 1966.Collection of Stanley Cifford L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L ES T U D I E S 5 7 W Y N K E L L E Y tary Ahab or the white wall against which he feels himself to be shoved Kienbuschs title and ambiguous central image raise the possibility that Ahab, isolated in his yearnings, is himself as inscrutable as the white whale.”2 Carl Little views the painting as symbolic of the “pasteboard mask” against which Ahab strikes: “He [Kienbusch] often cited Ahab’s imperative, ‘Strike through the mask!,’ in speaking of the artist’s mission to go beyond surface concerns, to seek the essence of the subject-the object, the figure, the landscape-a goal Bill strived for in his own work.”3Donelson Hoopes asserts that the painting registers the artist’s struggle with ambiguity: “The interplay of figure and ground that had evolved in Kienbuschs landscape subjects provided a solution to this problem [of Melville’sbivalent text] by virtue of its capacity for shifting the viewer’sperception back and forth between the delicate reality of the painted surface and the obscure symbolic content hovering within.”P All of these readings suggest the complexity of Kienbuschs task, to render the ambiguities of a verbal text in a visual medium.5 Stanley Clifford, Kienbuschs friend and former student, comments on a slightly different duality, the adversarial relationship between Ahab and the object of his quest, Moby Dick, a conflict which he claims Kienbusch resolved by picturing an ocean wave: “[thepainting’s subject] can be found in Ahabs own characterization of himself at the end of the book in ‘The...


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