The title for the Yale Center for British Art’s latest exhibition, “‘into the light of things’: Rebecca Salter, Works 1981-2010,” is taken from a Wordsworth poem. Printed largely in the exhibit’s entry bay, the full line reads: “Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.” The deeply reflective retrospective — the first for Salter — contains over 150 drawings and paintings: Salter has proved herself a prodigious as well as thoughtful learner. Her art favors presence and being over documentation of the past. And despite the abstraction and diversity among her works, they are concretely united by quiet convergences: East and West, line and shape, surface (exteriority) and depth (interiority). The exhibition’s thrust lies in forcing the viewer’s interaction with time and space. Salter’s art is the feeling of pencil on the skin and the mark after it’s erased.
It was hard at first to understand — but I expected as much from abstract art. I walked around the exhibit backwards and missed a room entirely (both weirdly enough as the floorplan is simply a circle) before reading the exhibit’s label text (…). The writing on the wall explains that Salter originally studied ceramics in 1979 through a scholarship that took her to Kyoto, where she deepened her study and interest in Japanese art. Although a successful ceramist, her frustration with the uncertainty of firing works in a kiln led her to transition to painting and drawing instead, where final outcomes remain in the artist’s control. Yet the influence of sculpture, and most importantly the Japanese artistic tradition, is still considerable in her abstract work, which combines Western and Eastern artistic methods. Salter still refers to the construction of her essentially two-dimensional surfaces as “making an object,” and the conceptualization is fitting. After all, her works consist of multiple layers and make extensive use of painting, drawing, and print-making, exploring the boundaries of both different cultures and multiple media simultaneously. The show’s singularity lies in its clear articulation of formal elements, using muted grays with the full expressive range of color, to produce in the viewer a feeling of peaceable contemplation.
The first room in the exhibit, to the right of the entry, shows Salter’s attention to “ma,” the Japanese word for which no direct translation is available. It appears here as the time it takes for the viewer to visualize the intervals of space within the paintings. These works disfigure three-dimensional space through projecting lines, producing the sensation of movement within the viewer. At the same time, Salter’s focus on tranquility persists. There is enough distance for repose between these movements, and the strong black lines in the piece serve not as obstructions, but as signifiers of moments in space, the axis upon which the eye changes direction. Space, with regard to Salter’s work, seems to rest in the viewer’s own experience of the painting, establishing her relation to space clearly so that the subtler iterations of the theme in later rooms is recognizable.
If there is a subject to these paintings, it is precisely “the light of things” — represented by a myriad of forms that the viewer will not only see, but also experience. The dearth of recognizable forms — there are no rivers, no trees, no oceans, just patterns — emphasizes emotion, irreducible in its activated state.
Salter has remarked that creating lines “alive and autonomous in a dialogue with the space and the color requires a state of skilled ‘unknowing.’” This concept is central to the Zen philosophy of nothingness, but the line’s extensions in the works speak to an idea of infinity, which might as well be the same thing. After spending all day in the classroom, seeing Salter’s show is a gift and break from books and section. For all its ambiguity, the art — like silence — fills the space with its absence and demands contemplation. There is enough beauty to command any viewer’s attention and to induce patience in those without it.