Contributed by Ken Buhler / One afternoon last summer I decided to go to the National Gallery in London. I was in upstate New York, idly turning the pages of a book of Italian paintings, when I came upon Piero Della Francesca’s Baptism. Its geometric perfection and its eloquence struck me full-on. The plan for the trip came together in an instant: I knew that I would have to travel to London to see it in person. I am not the kind of person who spontaneously runs off on overseas trips, but the feeling of not worrying about the practicalities right at that moment was satisfying. I turned another page and there was Piero’s Nativity– also at the National Gallery. It took my breath away. To me, as a painter, seeing these pictures at that moment seemed to mean something important.
I had seen those two Pieros in person twice. The first time was on a work trip during the two years I spent as the studio assistant for Helen Frankenthaler, who had a show of small paintings at Knoedler Gallery and was creating sets and costumes for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. I stayed up long past midnight on the opening night of the ballet, waiting for the first reviews, the whole event a drama worthy of its own separate essay. But the ballet project was in the hands of choreographers, designers, and directors, and I was fairly free to visit the museums. The trip I remember best, though, was in 1990 with my late wife, the painter Mary Hambleton, on the occasion of an exhibition of her paintings at that same Knoedler Gallery. Mary had a deep love of Piero, stemming from an earlier trip to Italy. She had made the Piero pilgrimage: Arezzo, Monterchi, San Sepulchro, and returned suffused with the geometry and light of those paintings. The worlds depicted in those two Piero paintings at the National Gallery were like touchstones in our relationship – we had journeyed into them together. For years after that trip, whenever we would drive by a rocky hillside dotted with blackish green silhouettes of trees reminiscent of those in the paintings, the moment was inevitably acknowledged with a single word – “Piero.”
During the months leading up to the trip in January, I managed to convince my son, Jacob, to join me. He and I had not been on a real trip together since his mother had died nearly a decade earlier. Though I had proposed such trips in the past, the idea had never caught fire with him. In reality, I was a bit nervous, unsure of how we would get along on a long journey. Things were not always easy between us. Yet this time, when I asked him if he would like to join me, his answer was an almost immediate “yes.” In that moment, the trip gathered momentum and significance.
Our week-long London agenda was an easy one. We had two sets of priorities, mine – art and soccer, and his – soccer and art. On our first day, we eased into the experience at the Tate Modern. We saw a wonderful exhibition of Anni Albers’ textiles and drawings and spent a couple of hours watching Christian Marclay’s The Clock. We were to miss the opening of a huge Bonnard show there by just a couple of weeks, and I peered longingly through a narrow opening into rooms where I could see his paintings being installed. The next day would be our first at the National Gallery. Exiting the tube station at Trafalgar Square, we found it bustling with activity and people. In addition to the tourists milling about, there were noisy Brexit demonstrations. We made our way through the crowds to the entrance of the museum and left the temporal world behind.
Wandering through the galleries, pretty much without a plan, we found ourselves being pulled one direction, then another, allowing the magnetic forces of the paintings to navigate for us. A compelling painting, even from a distance, can draw a viewer in by virtue of its shaping, light, or tonality, offering subtle rewards upon closer examination. A spectacular painting like Uccello’s Battle of San Romano has that quality for me, as do Titian’s Baachus and Ariadne, and Bronzino’s Cupid and Venus. Their structural power distinguishes them, their very form is capable of unlocking a part of our imagination as only these paintings can.
Other paintings, no less powerful, seem to whisper to you. They beckon, not by dramatic action on the canvas, but by an aura of light, color, and associated meaning. Like walking through a shadowed forest and noticing the iridescent glow of lichen on a rock, or a fern of the most delicate green, these paintings attract through nuance, each element taking on greater significance with prolonged viewing. Pisanello’s strange and mystical painting The Vision of St. Eustace, or Piero di Cosimo’s achingly tender Satyr over Wounded Nymph, convey that kind of intimacy.
It is hard to describe the exhilaration I felt seeing all of those paintings again. They struck me as elements in the narrative of my life that had been missing and were now back in their proper place, offering a resolutely expanded understanding of the world and of my chosen life as a painter. There was a large dose of humility there, too. How could such perfection be possible? It was thrilling. Having been reunited with these paintings, it was hard to imagine how I had lived without them. But these images are durable; they will never dissolve or go flat. If it is another ten years before I see them again, they will still be offering their particular trajectory into another world. No context, no text is required.
We finally turned a corner to arrive at Piero’s Baptism and Nativity, the two paintings that had been the catalysts for this trip. There was the geometry, the formalism, and monumentality that Mary had absorbed, but there was also the charged space and light with its transformative spiritual dimension that she embraced. Each shape, angle, color, and edge is integrated into the whole in such effortless perfection that to take them in is to be engulfed in their stillness and the sense of the eternal. Everything matters in these paintings. I stood in front of the Nativity and then the Baptism, which were adjacent, marveling at them, and also at the completion of the pilgrimage that began from a book in upstate New York.
Of course, it was Mary’s book on Italian painting I had been looking at. More and more, this trip seemed to have her fingerprints on it. There I was in London, standing in front of two of her favorite paintings with our son. The joy and privilege of sharing the experience with him made the day even more remarkable. If Jacob had any reservations about looking at old paintings with his father, they never manifested outwardly. He gave himself permission to indulge alongside me. He took photos of me standing in front of these cherished paintings. After about five hours, we decided to adjourn, not wanting to break the spell the paintings had cast.
Later, resting in our Airbnb before going out for dinner, I checked my phone for messages. My brother-in-law Ed had texted a photograph of Mary’s grave marker from Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore. If you have ever been to the Duomo in Siena, Italy, you will remember the striking black-and-white striped stone columns and walls that distinguish its interior architecture. Those stripes had made a deep impression on Mary and they had found a way into many of her paintings. I had not been able to resist incorporating them into her gravestone, made with alternating horizontal strips of white marble and black granite. Ed’s photo showed fresh flowers on the marker, so I thought he had gone to visit her grave and wanted me to know that he was thinking of her and of us. Astonished at my forgetfulness, I realized that it was January 9, 2019, the tenth anniversary of her death. Jacob and I had been in a museum for the entire day looking at paintings that Mary had loved, paintings that had informed her life as a painter. If she could have planned a day in her remembrance, it would have proceeded exactly as ours had.
Shortly after my return to Brooklyn, a curator from the Baltimore Museum of Art selected one of Mary’s paintings to join their world-class collection. I hung the painting, Query, a majestic and beautiful work, in my studio for a couple of days before it left for its new home. My eyes, still resonating with the timeless allure of the National Gallery collection, took in Mary’s painting with new insight. I saw in it a chronicle of her life, the story of the paintings she loved and the many elements of the world she had embraced over her lifetime, all synthesized into a form of her own making. I was sad to see it go, but also happy that it would be out there in the world sharing its own particular cosmos with others’, for decades to come. The more immediate future will offer an opportunity for Jacob and me to see Que installed at the Baltimore Museum. It turns out that we travel well together after all.
About the author: Ken Buhler is painter and an artist-in-residence in the Studio Arts Program at Bard College, where he has taught since 2000. His solo exhibitions include shows at Lesley Heller Gallery, O’Hara Gallery, Michael Walls Gallery, and the Beach Museum of Art, Kansas. He lives and works in Brooklyn and in Masonville, NY.