Light In Translation: On Spencer Finch

By Ange MlinkoDecember 3, 2012

Light In Translation: On Spencer Finch
All images provided courtesy of Spencer Finch.

THE ARTIST SPENCER FINCH has produced pendant photographs of two places in Brooklyn where a rainbow ended. This was a rainbow he'd glimpsed through the window of the F train, at the Smith-Ninth Street station on 10/24/99 at 3 PM to be exact. The locations are, necessarily, inexact. (Finch overlaid a street map onto a topological map and reobserved the site on the train to deduce them.) Nevertheless, they stand for the way any rainbow arbitrarily joins two spots on earth for the span of a few minutes or seconds. Both photos frame ordinary sidewalk views of Brooklyn: one of a closed corrugated metal garage door with graffiti garlanding the familiar interdiction No Parking, beside which a dumpster, beside which a couple bags of garbage; the other of a corner bodega, half a car, another No Parking sign. Whatever rainbow idled there, it wasn’t for long, and it left no trace of itself. Thus the photos, unpeopled and vaguely desolate, also conjure Walter Benjamin’s famous description of the French photographer Eugene Atget’s landscapes: “He photographed them like scenes of a crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence.”

Rainbow (Brooklyn, 2001) 16" x 12" each; Archival Inkjet Photograph and Pencil.

To establish evidence of something as ephemeral as a rainbow puts us right at the intersection of precision and illusion, a paradox also suggested by the title of Finch’s retrospective, What Time Is It on the Sun?, which I saw at Mass MoCA in early 2008. I caught it purely by chance on a desperate midwinter weekend getaway. It was genius on the part of those curators in Pioneer Valley to bring a show of varied light installations and investigations to New England during the darkest days of the year. Standing in front of the photos of Brooklyn, I felt a pang. I had recently left Brooklyn and did not miss it; yet looking at those drab street views, iconic only to someone who had lived and walked there half-oblivious to similar corrugated metal garage doors for many years, I was transported back. I was living there, was I not, on the date of the rainbow? I looked again. No, I was in Ifrane, Morocco at that point, at loose ends and depressed. I had given up a decent apartment at 8th Street and 4th Avenue to join my husband at the Arab university where he had gotten his first teaching job. If you know Brooklyn, you know that 8th Street and 4th Avenue is a pretty dumpy address in Gowanus, scarcely to be mourned. You also know that it was close to the Smith–9th Street subway station where the legs of a rainbow were caught joining two disparate locations.

Let the vision of a rainbow over Brooklyn on 10/24/99 stand for one scene of one crime, and the vision of my forlorn self in the Middle Atlas Mountains on 10/24/99 stand for another.


There was another reason for a poet to be gratified by Spencer Finch’s work, besides the immediate thrill of light and color in Massachusetts in January. American poetry is an intimate reference point for Finch. One of his best known pieces, Sunlight in an Empty Room, recreates the light conditions in the backyard of Emily Dickinson's house on the afternoon in 2004 when he happened to visit with his light chronometer. “He took multiple readings as clouds passed overhead and created shade,” according to the exhibition text:

For his installation Finch replicated the New England sunlight with two rows of fifty fluorescent tubes, each row including a precise mix of three distinct color temperatures. To create the effect of a cloud, he made a twelve-foot-high by fifteen-foot-long mass of translucent blue, gray, and violet filters held together with clothespins, which he hung in front of the bank of lights. As viewers walk around the artificial cloud, moving from light to shadow, they experience the light conditions produced by the passing cloud in the poet's garden.

Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004)
, 2004; Dimensions variable; 100 Fluorescent lights, Fixtures, Filters, monofilament, and clothespins.

The cellophane cloud carries a charge of combined sublimity and whimsy; the clothespins, while alluding to Dickinson’s domesticity, also resemble alighting birds. It is a good approximation, in physical terms, of the tenor of Dickinson’s lighter poems:

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel —
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal —
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head —
The Mail from Tunis — probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride —

Another of Finch’s installations takes its inspiration from the 20th century New York School poet James Schuyler. A Few Days Are All We Have (Sky, January 1–June 17, 2007) is a series of colored gels covering seven windows, each gel standing in for the light on a particular day as seen from the window of the Chelsea Hotel lair where Schuyler lived in the 1970s and 1980s.

This is a record of light as exquisite as those given in Schuyler’s own poems, which he too would often date in diaristic fashion; like this one, titled “Dec. 28, 1974”:

The plants against the light
which shines in (it's four o'clock)
right on my chair: I'm in my chair:
are silhouettes, barely green,
growing black as my eyes move right,
right to where the sun is.

“Exquisite”: the word comes from the Latin “to search out,” and it applies to scientific as well as verbal accuracy. Another Finch work, “Abecedary (Nabokov’s Theory of a Colored Alphabet Applied to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle),” makes sensual use of both modes of thinking. First Finch transcribed 12 pages, or 9,251 characters, of a text by the physicist Werner Heisenberg, and then rewrote it in an alphabet described by Vladimir Nabokov in his own account of his synaesthesia, from Speak, Memory:

In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by "brassy with an olive sheen."

Then he turned these characters into dots, and made a mural-size randomized drawing of them. What weighs more in the balance — the methodical, rational, meaning-making process, or the instability, subjectivity, uncertainty, and serendipity of color? Of particle physics? Of life itself?

Abecedary (Nabokov's Theory of a Colored Alphabet applied to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle), 2004; 9' x 30'; Ink and Watercolor on Paper.

The poet searches out the apt word, the scientist the apt procedure; both require an exquisite faculty or instrument. Here, as with the Schuyler piece, Finch indulges his penchant for importing, via chronometer or colorimeter, the light measurements of one space into another. (Verse, too, requires taking measurements — as in meter and line count — to translate experience into memorable speech.) He took the measurements of evening light in the Hudson Valley and exhibited it in Lubljiana, Slovenia in 2005. He went to the site of Troy in southwestern Turkey and took the measure of dawn there, reasoning that it would have changed little since Achilles’s day.

It was this piece — Eos — that hit me the hardest that day at Mass MoCA. I was pushing my second baby in a stroller; my first was darting in every direction, threatening to make hash of something or other. Eos is the Greek goddess of dawn. (In college, I'd gotten to the point where I could translate a bit of Homer, and then stopped, but I remembered that much.) An impetuous grief rose in me,for the stupidity of my younger self, but mostly for the fact that I had never been to Troy — not even close — and I could not foresee a time when I ever would. Not with babies, not with a mortgage. But Finch’s Eos brought the light home to me.

Eos (Dawn, Troy, 10/27/02), 2002; Dimensions Variable; 79 Fluorescent lights, Fixtures, Filters.

This, as I’ve mentioned, was January 2008. It was the darkest time of the year. Snow was general. We had made this weekend trip out of desperation and not because we actually had the cash to pay for it. Within a year the financial crisis would hit. My husband would lose his job; we would not be able to keep our house. In January 2010 I was, incredibly, on the Mediterranean, waking up in a friend's daybed on the Saronic Gulf, with the geranium dawn thrilling across the sky in the direction of Eleusis.

Let one leg of the rainbow be that cold winter day in Massachusetts when I stood, almost crying, before Eos. Let the other leg of the rainbow fall on the Greek island where I found myself, improbably, two years later.


Like the best poetry, Finch's work seems odd, maybe a bit vaporous, perhaps not important enough. (Rainbows — I know, right?)

He's in on a secret that all real poets know, which is coded into the English language in the double sense of the word light. Dickinson knew it, and so did Schuyler. In its noun and verb forms, the word signifies something essential to life — food, warmth, knowledge. ("The plants against the light ...") In its adjective form, it connotes something weightless, substanceless, and frivolous. Both senses must be acknowledged in any sane art. (Schuyler, later in the same poem: "I want to hear the music / hanging in the air and drink my / Coca-Cola.")


2008 was a lifetime ago. I pull out the monograph from What Time Is It on the Sun? There are three miniature works of art in it.

One is a clear plastic pocket containing blue and purple cellophane filters to stand in for Sky Over 23rd Street for James Schuyler, December 31, 2006, 3:15 PM.

Another is a blank page called Sun Stain, March–April, 2007: "A circular area near the center of this paper was exposed to the sun on the artist's roof for an entire day." (On the back, marked in handwriting: "4/9." My mind harks back to what I might have been doing on 4/9/07, or 12/31/06: Can’t remember. Probably changing diapers, keeping house in the old place. Precious time, precious remembrance of things indelibly past.)

The third is a folded insert of what seems like a blank black poster.

Warm it with your palms, however, or better yet a hair dryer, and you will expose a treasure map pointing to the spot where Finch buried an ounce of gold bouillon in North Adams, Massachusetts. The coordinates, the street names, the arrows pointing toward on the one hand Williamstown and on the other Greenfield, bring back a flood of memories. No need to search for the actual bouillon; its alchemical counterpart rests in my brain, waiting to be unearthed.

I can't believe it's taken me over four years to rediscover this poster. But then, I've dragged this book across two thousand miles since I bought it. And I've lived at four addresses, spanning three continents, in that time. Contingency? Serendipity? Instability? Uncertainty? I miss the light in the Hudson Valley, in Brooklyn, and in New England. Let one leg of the rainbow end here in Houston, where I now live; let the other end somewhere in my former happy hunting grounds. If there’s anything Finch’s artwork should have taught me, it’s that, at the end of the rainbow, there’s a No Parking sign.

The contact paper goes back to black, give or take a minute.


LARB Contributor

Ange Mlinko’s most recent book of poetry is Shoulder Season (Coffee House, 2010). She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Houston.


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