Rose Window, St. John the Divine

At this dark time of the year, we like light. So we have festivals of light: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve too, with its bright parties, and fireworks, and the fabulous walk-in lantern that is Times Square.

Times Square, of course, is a lantern year round. In cities the lights are always on. To a large degree cities are constructed of light enclosed and released. This is what attracts people to them, the great blaze that never goes out. And the light is extremely varied. From our Bronx apartment, we look one way and see sunlight changing color on nearby high rises and a Milky Way of all-night Manhattan lights beyond. The view in the other direction is to empty sky and the Hudson, by day as mutable in tone as gray jade and all but invisible after dark unless a passing ship tells you it’s there. Same city, different impressions of light.

But this is true in any neighborhood, anywhere, just as it is true of images of light in art spread across the city. And the way light looks depends a lot on who’s looking. In the 19th century American landscape artists hiked the wilderness, taking field notes on natural light, obsessively recording its qualities at specific times and places. When they returned to their city studios to paint, though, they bathed their landscapes in a theatrical glow that showed little evidence of direct observation.

For them light was a complex element; a hard, recordable fact, yes, but also a symbol, a big idea. In a new nation still deeply religious and in search of a triumphal identity, light in art implied revelation. And what was being revealed was God’s plan for America as the chosen land, the New Eden. Divine light shone on it and on the artists inventing its national image.

Time passed. Culture changed. And light, ever volatile, has taken on many other roles in art. Sometimes it is used to obscure rather than clarify meaning. Sometimes it serves as a warning rather than a warming agent. Traditional religious associations hold. Light streaming from the great Rose Window at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine seems austerely empyreal in the recently scrubbed and brightened interior.

But increasingly, illumination has become a private experience, the way poetry is: one piece matched to one reader, a reader willing to be “lit with piercing glances into the life of things,” to quote Marianne Moore. Moore, a lifelong New York City resident, did not take aesthetic revelation casually, but she was pragmatic. She understood you had to seek it to find it. She found a constant source in her hometown.

Poetic and pragmatic is an apt description of New York and its light. This is an island city — of its five boroughs only the Bronx is part of the North American mainland — with an island light, alternately obdurate and romantically moody. It can be too candid. Noon light in New York is not going to make you look rosy if you’re pale, or rested if you’re tired, or younger than you are. But its toughness is democratic: it falls on everybody and everything the same way.


Holland Cotter
New York Times