This should be my last post into the poetics of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan’s deaths. I still feel that there are harmonies with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice—that somehow, when Blake swam out from Rockaway beach, he was swimming toward getting Duncan back, or at least getting back to her.
Blake’s digital animations are frequently compared to American abstract painting of the color field variety. But his works share striking similarities to the earlier movement known as Orphism, arguably the first abstract paintings and certainly the first based around color. Its major practitioners, Robert and Sonia Delaunay*, Frantisek Kupka, and Francis Picabia, were preoccupied with the application of color theory to mimic the effects of music. Compared to the static colors of postwar Americans, the Orphic painters’ colors vibrate and move, kind of like Blake’s blends of color with snippets of music and sound (or straight-up music videos).
When Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term Orphism in 1912, he recalled the Symbolist associations of Orpheus as the poet who illuminated the world’s mysteries through song. Apollinaire claimed that just like Orpheus, these artists would make the stones dance and wild animals listen. People could get away with sweeping statements back then, but his point is the mystic-mythic status of the artist within a larger, less talented society. The Orphic view is the old discredited idea of the artist as young god.
Its vestige today is the artist as collaborator on cool consumer products. Though we don’t consider them as visionary as we did a century ago, when artists collaborate on fashion, hand bags, and (insert Blake here) music videos and film graphics, it is the artist’s aura as other-and-above that’s being lent to commercial goods and high-end entertainment.
Blake’s frequent interaction with films, music, and video games is admirable, but it depended on this old-school idea of the artist. Blake’s sequences updated holdovers from modernism — abstraction, stream of consciousness, romanticism — which he mixed with pop imagery to create his “peep show for poets.” He called to mind this idea of painter-poet in the Orpheus mold. With his disappearance last week, that association is sealed.
*glamorous artist couple