Some years ago I worked out a nice little metaphor for the path a painting follows toward completion: an asymptote, a curving line that forever approaches tangent with the x or y axis but never gets there. The concept of the asymptote is perhaps the only fragment that remains from my career in high school mathematics, and it likely survives only because of what I felt to be its poetic pathos: the idea of the endless approach, of getting closer by infinitesimally minute increments, but never meeting; of shooting out forever into space yet never making landfall.
Anyway, I looked it up to check my recalled definition, now 15 odd years out from my last math class, and I found I had the gist, but had incorrectly identified the curved line as the asymptote, which in fact refers to the straight line of the axis - the line that is never reached. The word comes from the Greek asymptotus - "not meeting." Webster says it is “a line that is the limiting position of a tangent to a curve as its point of contact recedes indefinitely along an infinite branch of the curve.”
I’m a bit thrown, having to adjust my analogy, although I suppose it is simply a question of re-labelling. The painting is still the yearning, thwarted curve; but it is not an asymptote, which instead describes what the painting - or rather I - strive for, the unmoving, straight line of completion, an unattainable horizon.
(Yet how can two lines verge so close as to be indistinguishable, but never merge? To me, this is incomprehensibility in microcosm, the infinite parsing of zero; as staggering as the more grandiose and equally unthinkable infinity of the universe, writ so large across the emptiness of the sky that the only possible response is to ignore it. To make the sky the inside of a box-top, a flat blue lid clapped over my daily course.)
Several years ago, a sentence came into my mind that has lingered, perplexing me, not being in the habit of receiving and parsing private orphic utterances: “Only the unfinished has life.” I saw how this was literally true - in that a “finished” life necessarily requires a person’s death - but couldn’t figure out what it might mean in relation to actual paintings. But I begin to see now that this does not mean something as obvious as leaving paintings in the tantalizing but mannered state of non finito, but something far more delicate and interesting: to intuit when a work has come to a certain balancing point, a kind of energized repose, when continued earnest effort will only deaden something lively. To leave a work while it still vibrates, subtly, in its course toward the asymptote, to not push a painting so far along in search of an idea of completion that this vital pulse becomes too small to detect. I still find this maddeningly difficult. Apparently unable to stop myself, I keep pushing things till they lie flat on the wall, overthrown.
Apropos of this I find myself quoting yet again from Anne Truitt, whose temperament I feel a hopeful kinship with, and whom I have constructed out of her ruthlessly lucid, deeply humane writing as my own personal sage. This very morning in the chilly sapphire pre-dawn I dog-eared a page in Prospect at the following passage about her own process of finishing work.
Parting from a work of art is a skill. During the 1950s while I was teaching myself how to be an artist, I used to keep bearing down on the work under my hand until I felt it was finished. For some years I failed to realize that each work had a timing of its own, that in some subtle way it finished itself. Once I had learned to pay more attention to it instead of to myself, I began to notice that nothing in art is ever “finished.” I could transfer many of my habits to my work but I could not enjoy the satisfaction of having completed a task - as I was accustomed to finishing the dishes or making the beds or completing an academic paper. Instead, I learned to catch the moment when a work trembled on the threshold of becoming an entity, and to take my hand off it, leave it be. By the time that my work began to appear in my mind in the 1960s, I had fixed this phenomenon as a fact and could accept the corollary fact that every work I made was a failure when looked at in the light of what I had conceived that it was going to be. No matter how faithfully I folded concept into a material form, something evanescent and ineffable remained aloof. Concept resisted facture, and matter resisted the imposition of concept.