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Abstract-Looking Meditation on Thomas Merton's Art

Reviewed by Menachem Wecker
Special to the Herald
(From the Issue of 6/1/06) The disappearing ink act performed at the Summer Palace in Beijing might best symbolize Thomas Merton's art and life. At the palace, retired calligraphers gather to write with water on the sidewalks. Though the sun quickly evaporates the water, the marks seem all the more imperative for their fleetingness.
As both American Trappist monk and celebrated writer, Merton's life made powerful evaporating marks. Like his parents, Merton died prematurely, accidentally electrocuting himself in Bangkok at age 53, ending a career that produced over 70 books and thousands of articles.
While studying at Columbia University, Merton converted to Catholicism and later joined Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Merton was not your typical monk, often contentiously abandoning his books for art. "Unfortunately … the peculiar circumstances of this monastery prevent real spiritual growth," Merton wrote a former Gethsemani monk in 1959, citing "the superficial and somewhat false good humor" and "a lack of real interior life." But three years later, Merton happily wrote the head of the order, "I am very thankful in my monastic vocation … to be a strange and funny creature, a sort of 20th-century juggler. But my brothers tolerate me and they love me; I also love them very much. God will do the rest."
Merton's artwork is a huge trove of multidisciplinary prints and drawings that "has scarcely seen the light of day," according to a new book by Roger Lipsey. Lipsey's Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton focuses on the last decade of Merton's life, the 60's, when he was most dynamic: drawing, printing, writing and traveling the world. The book gathers 34 drawings and prints, each flanked by selections from Merton's writings.
But Lipsey stresses that Merton didn't always make art. "I ought to be writing poetry and doing creative work. Or nothing," Merton dejectedly recorded in his journal on Oct. 28, 1960. "Tried some abstract-looking art this week. This [has] no relevance to problem." One month later, he still had "not done any drawings for a long time," though he reluctantly mailed a friend some drawings with the caveat, "They are very modern and sketchy, and you may not like them."
The same day he tried his abstract-looking art, Lipsey observes, Merton visited the Cincinnati Art Museum looking for images for his unpublished manuscript, Art and Worship. He particularly enjoyed the Hindu and Muslim sacred art, which later evolved into his own blend of Zen Buddhist-inspired Catholic drawings.
Merton called his art "collaborations with solitude," but paradoxically, his solitude gave birth to an adoring public and many friendships, most prominently with painter Ad Reinhardt, famous for meditative, monochromatic canvases. Reinhardt, like many of Merton's friends, smuggled catalogs and other books to Merton, who met visitors at Cunningham's, a restaurant in Louisville where he could remain hidden in a private booth.
Many of Merton's images collected in the book are gutsy and political, like one anti-war image of a war bird (1965), which resembles an elephant with big ears and a trunk. The image probably depicts a bomber that Merton saw fly overhead. "I have seen the SAC plane with the bomb in it, fly low over me," Merton wrote, "and I have looked up out of the woods directly at the closed bay of the metal bird with a scientific egg in its breast!"
Another image that typifies Merton's repertoire is titled "That is what it means to be a Christian." The image shows a cross that dissolves into the white of the page on all but the right arm. The top center could show the head of Christ, although there is no indication of any body attached to the head. "Christ not as object of seeing or study," Merton wrote in 1968, "but Christ as center in whom and by whom one is illuminated."
Like the Beijing calligraphers' work, the crucifix is absent and present; it illuminates and is illuminated. Merton refused to allow for interpretations of his work, which he called "summonses to awareness" or "footprints divested of ego and yet not anonymous."
Ironically, Merton found comfort in the absurdity of the melting crucifix as he probably would in the dissolving calligraphy. "Suddenly there is a point where religion becomes laughable," Merton wrote four days before he died. "Then you decide that you are nevertheless religious." Wecker is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at mwecker@gmail.com.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2006