At a Loss for Words

 “What is painting? Do you sense how all the parts of a good picture are involved with each other, not just placed side by side? Art is a creation for the eye and can only be hinted at with words.”

That framed black-and-white phrase, hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art alongside “The Scream,” “A Starry Night,” “Marilyn,” and some of the world’s most iconic paintings, stopped me in my wandering tracks. I make my living as a “writer,” but often the experiences that trigger my deepest emotions are not accompanied by words. So why do I even try to communicate with words?

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I had nothing to say while standing in front of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” I’ve seen reproductions of the most vibrant version of his pastel series dozens of times, especially since it sold in 2012 for a record $119,922,500 at a Sotheby’s auction. But to see the real screamer despairing under a blood red sky evoked in me such a contradictory convergence of gloom and joy that all I could do was stand there and soak in the emotion.

I had the same reaction a few weeks ago in Santa Fe as I followed photographer Annie Leibovitz through a preview of “Pilgrimage,” her show that opened at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe in early February. “Pilgrimage,” which is also a book, is devoid of humans. Instead Leibovitz photographed famous American landscapes and objects like Ansel Adams’ dark room, Henry David Thoureau’s bed, Elvis Presley’s shot television, and Georgia O’Keefe’s chalk tray. As Leibovitz put it, she was “driven by an emotional need to translate objects in an emotional way. I had no agenda other than being moved to take a photo.”

Then last week a package arrived in the mail. It was from Phyliss Hoffman, an 80-year-old Washington D.C.-area artist and friend who sent me three of her prints because she’s trying to slim down her collection. My favorite, “Cello Ensemble,” is an etching Hoffman drew on a zinc plate, in reverse, with a lithographic crayon. It’s an homage to Pablo Casals, inspired by Hoffman’s trip to Puerto Rico to hear him play in the Casals Festival.

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Part of the process of maturing as a writer is knowing when I have something to say. And while words will never convey the beauty and power these three artists have created, it would be almost irresponsible not to try.

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4 Responses to “At a Loss for Words”


  1. 1 ABRAZOstyle March 4, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Just as a visual artist has a vocabulary of symbols such as colors or marks, a writer has a vocabulary of words and punctuation to arrange and rearrange into different “stories” driving emotion, thought and action.
    Harder for writers I think because people take words so literally…

    I love when two people communicate in languages that neither understands. It is a dance of gestures, intonation, facial expression…words become colors…

  2. 3 Carol Norton March 6, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Love this. Both the words and the pictures speak to me. Makes me realize I really need to go see that show at the O’Keefe. Images alone had not convinced me, but your words did.


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