The Sense of Painting

The post below was penned by artist Peter Kline. For more information about Peter and his beautiful artwork, please visit: (All images are of Peter Kline’s paintings.)

“Painting is the art of bodies, in that it only knows about skin, being skin through and through. Another name for local color is carnation. Carnation is the great challenge posed by those millions of bodies in paintings: not incarnation, where Spirit infuses the body, but carnation plain and simple, referring to the vibration, color, frequency, and nuance of a place, of an event of existence.” – Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus

To Cynthia, for offering this space on her blog: thank you!

What I’d like to do here is try to make some sense of my own practice as a painter by thinking along with Jean-Luc Nancy.

At the heart of Nancy’s thought is a thinking of sense. Rather than truth or meaning, Nancy prefers to speak of sense. We don’t know the truth of the world so much as we sense the world. We make sense of the world. We touch it, and we are touched by it.

Sense, for Nancy, is always a form of touching. There is no sense, no meaning, no truth, without touch. This is simply to say that there is no sense without relation, without being-with.

The sense of a work of art, like the sense of anything else, arises only from the way it touches and is touched, from the way it engages one or multiple senses. A painting or drawing, for instance, asks to be touched by the viewer’s sight or vision. Nancy writes:

Vision…glides along swerves and follows along departures. It is a touching that does not absorb but moves along lines and recesses, inscribing and exscribing the body.[1]

The sense of a painting is found not only, or even primarily, in the apprehension of its finished form. The sense of a painting is always per-formed in the contact between the painting as skin and the vision that touches it and is touched by it. Eyes glide along curves and angles and feel out their sense. They follow formations and deformations, fissures, borders, and gaps. They leap between colors and get lost in shades.

Painting, no less than music, even if differently, unfolds in time, as the movement, the sense, of bodies in space.

Nancy’s philosophical and religious thought traces and performs the deconstruction of principled form that opens onto the touching of sense. What is possible on the other side of the death of metaphysical reason? Touching sense, Nancy answers, touching the infinite sense of the world, its being-with, that has no principle, no necessary form, only its own infinite possibility.

The self-deconstruction of Christianity is paradigmatic here, for Nancy. At the heart of Christianity is a body, specifically a body that calls attention to itself, absolutely: Here is my body. The sense of Christianity is the sense, the touch, of this body. Christianity proclaims nothing else, for Nancy, than the absolute “here” of the body. In doing so it also proclaims the absence of any hierarchical principle that would form the world from beyond, from elsewhere. Sense is absolutely here, not elsewhere, in and as the body that touches and is touched.

Nancy titles one of his chapters in his book, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, “There Is No Sense of Sense: That Is Worthy of Adoration.” There is no grounding principle that is worthy of adoration. Monotheism in its radically deconstructive gesture proclaims “the gods,” the principles that structure the world, to be nothing but idols. There is no grounding principle. The sense of the world is its opening to what exceeds any and all principle. This “what” is not any “thing,” no old or new god, but only the movement of the world’s own opening, its being-with itself as an opening.

Now that is worthy of adoration. The world comes from and rests on nothing. We are here, absolutely here, to adore this, to touch the opening that without principle forms at and as the heart of the world.

The self-deconstruction of painting over the past several centuries has followed this same movement. On the cover of the English translation of Nancy’s book Adoration, there is a reproduction of a painting by the French painter Simon Hantaï. Hantaï developed a method of painting in which the canvas is scrunched and folded up into itself, painted along its folds, ridges, and recesses, and then unfolded to reveal the unpredictable form of the painting. Hantaï lets the canvas touch itself. He lets it touch and be touched. The principled form of the canvas gives way to an unprincipled touching, a being-with of the painting with itself that is not a closure into itself but an opening onto infinite sense.

What is it that I do when I paint? Above all, I touch, I sense. I play with the infinite possibilities of sense. I let paint touch itself. I touch paint. I let paint touch me. Often I abandon my tools—principled instruments—and use my hands and fingers directly on the canvas or the wood or the paper. Or I use my tools in excess of their intended purpose. I touch them and let them touch differently, without principle.

My inspirations as a painter, those I adore, are painters who abandon themselves to the unprincipled sense of painting. Above all, for me, Cy Twombly:

As far as painting goes there’s enormous—probably more than with a lot of people—freedom…It’s instinctive in a certain kind of painting, not as if you were painting an object or special things, but it’s like coming through the nervous system. It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning. It’s like I’m experiencing something frightening, I’m experiencing the thing and I have to be at that state because I’m also going.[2]

And Jean-Michel Basquiat:

I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist. Or I’d draw a big ram’s head, really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.[3]

And Dorothea Tanning:

By the time I stood in front of this big white canvas, the game of prisms had taken me over. I don’t even know if it was a game anymore. It seemed so desperate, sometimes. It carried me away—so far that I didn’t even have to choose what would be there—I just dived in, and among the forms that came out were these things, there, presiding like friends at a picnic.[4]

To paint is to touch is to sense is to feel the opening of the world right here. Painters play with this opening. We try to sense it, to touch it, to let it touch us. It is an opening more intimate to the world than the world is to itself. It is this infinite dis-enclosure, like canvas as skin exposed to painter as lover, that forms, without measure, the gift of the world—that is worthy of adoration.

Peter Kline: [email protected]


[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, p. 45.