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CHASING MOBY-DICK ACROSS PAPER AND CANVAS: FIVE DECADES OF FREE-FLOATING LITERARY ART Curated by Robert K. Wallace n Moby-Dick 150years ago Ishmael delineated a range of difficulties necessarily faced by the artist who presumes to Idepict the whale. Chief among them is the absolute impossibility of the task. Because the living observer,even in a whaleboat, is never in a position to see the full shape of his prey, “the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.”’ Yet the difficulty of representation remains. Ishmael is alert to that difficulty throughout the novel, but nowhere does he present it with more insight and foresight than when standing before the fictional painting in the Spouter-Inn. As yet inexperienced in either whaling or art, Ishmael brings to this painting the realistic, adventuresome expectations of his (and Melville’s)age. Those expectations are denied by a canvas that appears to “delineate chaos bewitched.” Within its “nameless yeast” Ishmael can make out nothing more substantial than “a long, limber, portentous black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines.” Even so, his psyche gravitates to something within the painting itself. He intuits “a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.” His suspended consciousness is “darted through” by one “bright,but, alas, deceptive idea” after another. These are finally anchored by “that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?” (12-13). If the overriding difficulty for the Melvillean artist is the impossibility of painting the whale, one compelling aesthetic necessity might then be to create the painting in such a way that it expands our capacity for abstract rhapsody without at the same time foreclosing the force of our realistic need. Ishmael’s honest, anguished oscillation between the figurative and the abstract in responding to the Spouter-Inn painting in Melville’s 1851novel internalized a central issue that was to absorb countless American painters throughout the second half of the 20th century. The endless tension between the figurative and the abstract in the process of representing the impossibility of the task of painting the whale is one common element in the seven Melvillean artists whose nine artworks occupy the 10th floor of the Hofstra Museum exhibition. This shared tension, expressed by each artist individually, will be extended to all those viewers who internalize this sequence of artworks from successive decades in diverse pictorial media. These nine Moby-Dick artworks are free-floating in that they exist independent of, rather than as illustrations in, the novel. In the lingo of the whaling industry, they are “loose-fish,” physically unconnected to the book that has inspired them. At the same time, they are “fast-fish’’artworks, tied to the novel both conceptually and perceptually. Each work invites us to perceive it in its own pictorial space,place and medium, as well as to discern whatever we can grasp of its relation to the novel. As Ishmael says of the fast-fish whale, whether the “controlling medium” be “a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraphwire, or a strand of cobweb, it is all the same.” The viewer who can relate an artwork to the novel without sacrificing an appreciation of its own pictorial medium becomes the viewing equivalent of Ishmael’s ideal reader, “a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too” (396, 398). ’ Herman Melville, MolyDick. or, Thr Wliult,, ed Harrison Hayford, Hershel Pal-lter,G Thomas Tanselle (Elanston and Chicago- Northwestern Univei-slty Pi-essand the Newberry Library, 19881, p. 264 Suhsequeni citatms fi-omthis edition ~ ~ 1 1 p‘ircnthcrically in the texr. 5 ARTISTS AFTERMOBY-DICK CHASING MOBY-DICK ACROSS PAPER AND CANVAS: FIVE DECADES OF FREE-FLOATING LITERARY ART We could have no more appropriate starting point than Paul Jenkins’ 1953 painting Hornmage h Melville (figure l...


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