Ariadne's Afternoon by Richard Serra
Title: Ariadne's Afternoon (1982)
Artist: Richard Serra
Media: Oil stick on paper

Ariadne’s Afternoon

The last painting on our blogseum tour of finding the story in art is Ariadne’s Afternoon from 1982 by Richard Serra. Hmmmm, not much to go on here. Is there a story in this work of art?

Before we get to that, let’s pick up with our little game of finding songs that go with the art. So far we’ve heard “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces for our first painting, “The Gathering Manna” by Vannini. Then we heard “Slow Train” by Joe Bonamassa for our second painting, “Casey Jones” by Edwin Fulwider.

Here we need a song with black in it…. Any ideas? How about “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden? Or maybe “Back in Black” by AC/DC. Or “Blue on Black” by Kenny Wayne Shepherd. All good choices, but I decided to go with “Paint it Black” by the Stones from 1966.

Not too difficult to come up with a song for this one, but are there any stories? Each of our first two paintings had at least one obvious story. It was right there on the canvas. This one is just a black rectangle. Nothing to see here, so let’s move on, eh? But wait, I think there is a story here and maybe a lot more than in our previous works.

As you can tell from looking around this blog, I like to create photographs. Many of my photographs are abstract. Over the last few years I’ve become something of an abstract art nerd and one of the things I’ve learned about abstract art is that quite often the artist is using pure form, color, and texture to get inside your head.

Just like music has no physical form, but a good song can get into your head and alter your mood or trigger daydreams or recall memories to your mind, abstract artists are doing the same thing only through your eyes instead of your ears. We’re used to doing this with music, we don’t even think about it. Music is everywhere and listening to it and letting in sink in to our minds comes naturally.

But we aren’t used to doing it with visual art. Most of us aren’t surrounded by art all day every day. We have to stop a minute and let the painting sink in and see where it takes us. With abstract art the story is not handed to us on the surface of the painting. To find the story in this painting we have to look inside our minds – we have to bring something to the table. We have to co-create the art work so to speak.

Serra used something called an oil stick to ‘paint’ the black part of this painting. An oil stick is oil paint that has been thickened and formed into something like a big crayon. When it’s rubbed on a surface it sort of melts into a thick coating on the surface. You can’t see it by looking at a photo of this work, but in person the black part looks very heavy and slightly uneven although smooth. It appears to flow. The area in the upper right is not painted a different color – it’s un-colored. It’s the color of the paper because no paint was put there.

So what story can we create from this painting? For me one obvious avenue is that the heavy flowing black section reminds me of night and the unpainted part represents a patch of daylight – either the last bit of light at the end of an evening or the first bit before dawn. It reminds me of several stories from my own life.

For example when I was 8 or 9 years old there were no game consoles and the TV only had 4 channels so for fun I spent a lot of time hanging out with my father because he was always doing something interesting. We lived on a small farm and one Autumn evening after supper my father and I were down at the barn fixing the tractor. We were there a couple of hours and during that time the sun slowly sank into the west and sky changed from blue to orange to purple. The bats came out of their roosts and started flitting around. It got darker and darker until the sky became black and the stars came out. We decided it was time to knock off and head back.

I remember that as we were walking through the early night up the hill toward our house, I heard a flock of geese flying overhead. I could hear them, but the sky was too dark to see them except where they passed over the stars. I asked my father what in the world these geese were doing flying around in the dark. He said that maybe up where they are it isn’t dark yet. As a kid that idea really struck me – that even though the geese and I were in the same time frame, their view of the world at that moment could be totally different than mine.

That scene and that realization has stuck with me over the years. I can picture my father and I walking through the dark listening to the geese. This painting triggered that memory – the dark night and the glimmer of light the the geese could see, but I couldn’t.

Just sitting in front of this painting and letting my mind wander I was able to come up with three or four other stories like that from my own life. In fact I’d be willing to bet that if everyone stopped and thought for a bit, they could all come up with stories of their own. There are a lot of stories here. They just need you and me to bring them along with us.

When I was leading this tour in the museum, one person on the tour went a totally different route. Instead of a memory of an event, he created a new story line. He imagined the black part as a pad of paper and we had just torn off a corner in order to jot a note on it. What is the note about?

The stories don’t need to reflect real events or memories, they can be stories that we make up in the moment. When I listen to music I tend to daydream. We can do the same thing when looking at an abstract work like this. There is no end to the stories we can create.

We can also take the storytelling in another direction using clues that the artist gives us. Some artist’s don’t title their works in order to avoid influencing viewers in any particular direction, but Serra has titled this work – “Ariadne’s Afternoon”. If it’s the afternoon, then why is it black? And who is Ariadne? Time for another story.

Ariadne was a Cretan princess in Greek mythology. She was associated with mazes and labyrinths, especially The Labyrinth, a huge structure built for King Minos of Crete. The Labyrinth was dark as night and so complex were its twists and turns that it was impossible to find your way out once you ventured in. It was also home to the Minotaur, a frightening half man and half bull creature. For one reason and another (another story) every nine years seven young men and seven young women were forced to enter the labyrinth and wander around in the dark confusing tunnels until the Minotaur caught them and ate them.

Theseus Slaying the Minotaur
Title: Theseus Slaying the Minotaur (1843)
Artist: Antoine-Louis Barye
Media: Bronze

One day a man named Theseus decided to put an end to the sacrifices and destroy the Minotaur. He enlisted the help of the labyrinth’s keeper, Ariadne. Theseus stole into the maze with the other men and women armed with two gifts from Ariadne – a sword to kill the Minotaur and a ball of string. He trailed the string behind him as he went deeper and deeper into the winding tunnels. After disposing of the Minotaur he followed the string back to the entrance. Above is a sculpture of Theseus about to poke a hole in the Minotaur with Ariadne’s sword.

So perhaps the black paint is the darkness of the labyrinth and the dark fear of the Minotaur’s surprise attack that could come at any moment. The unpainted part could be the little glimmer of hope – the doorway to freedom, the escape. We can’t see anything, but we can follow the string and it can lead us to light and life.

Another direction to take the story of this painting is in the realm of science. When this painting was made, 1982, exploration of the universe and crazy things like black holes were all the rage fueled in part by the research of physicist Steven Hawking. This painting can lead us out into the far reaches of the galaxy. The heavy black paint could be a super dense black hole and the unpainted section the bright event horizon where matter changes from what is familiar to us into what is unknown and possibly unknowable.

This work offers so many possibilities for stories, many more than works that are considered ‘narrative’. When the story is spelled out for us, we have but one way to go, but when room is left for our imagination, we can go anywhere and everywhere. Each of us can encounter this work and find a different path and we can find a different path each time we encounter it.

As I said at the beginning of this tour, where there are humans there are stories. Museums are chock full of that uniquely human creation, art, so there are stories everywhere. Some are easy to spot and some not so easy. But next time you find yourself in a museum don’t just look at the pretty colors, take a little time to find the stories that bring the art to life.

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