A few nights ago I was on a ferry, crossing a shallow sound below a sky set with stars. The ferry navigated a narrow channel between sandbars and small islands, its way marked by red and green buoys, and lit by a spotlight on its roof to identify upcoming landmarks. It was nearly empty and the wide metal deck vibrated to the rhythm of the big diesel motor in the hull, and sometimes the whole boat shuddered as we turned into the current. The night was calm, and the water’s surface was disturbed only by our passage.
For the past decade I’ve had possession of an oil painting of what I’ve come to think of as a night battle at sea. It was made by a German expressionist who once had modest fame and was a family friend. The painting is extraordinarily theatrical, capturing physical and emotional tension through slashing diagonal lines, starbursts and aggressively applied strokes of white paint over a black field. At the same time, it’s a subtle and complex composition. Pockets of calm exist on its margins, and finely drawn details of what I take to be the path of burning shrapnel, telecommunications lines and radar towers and space-age flying spheres.
Under the monochrome surface is a base of red, yellow and blue pigment, and with close analysis it seems that there might be a second, colorful image obscured by the battle scene. I sometimes wonder if the artist completed a first work, and then concealed it with another, darker and more violent. Unfortunately I’m unable to ask him, as he took his own life when I was young, leaping off a roof in Manhattan.
On this new-moon night, the water’s surface slick with light before us, turbulent with the froth of the propeller behind, and underneath the faint sparkle of phosphorous. The painting, with its webs of power lines, its arcs of heat trailing into the distance, its roiled seas, a rocky mass that could be a jetty, and its tantalizing hints of color that suggest instead a golden beach, a crimson umbrella, and the deep, azure-blue sea.