As Carl Little writes in his review, “Enrique Martínez Celaya’s ‘The First Kierkegaard,’” Kierkegaard has been a constant source of inspiration for the Cuban-born painter Enrique Martínez Celaya, “one of a number of philosophers and writers whose work he has studied, absorbed, and responded to.” Little reports on One-on-One: Enrique Martínez Celaya / Albert Pinkham Ryder, which is on view at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st Street NW, Washington, DC) through April 2, 2017.
[. . .] Kierkegaard has been a constant source of inspiration for the Cuban-born painter Enrique Martínez Celaya, one of a number of philosophers and writers whose work he has studied, absorbed, and responded to (the roster includes Robert Frost, Joseph Brodsky, Mandelstam, Rilke, and Maeterlinck). Celaya has produced a series of paintings related to the Danish existentialist, starting with “The First Kierkegaard,” 2006, which is on view at the Phillips Collectionthrough April 2.
Celaya’s painting portrays the spectral figure of a thin, naked adolescent boy standing both against and within a dark background, the surface of the painting resembling a blackboard that has been scratched and erased over and over. The boy’s body, painted in a soft brown tone, is lightly outlined, with his anatomy minimally delineated: facial features, collar bone, nipples, genitals, feet. His left arm rests by his side while the right is held straight and slightly away from his body. He wears a thoughtful expression on his face — something like resignation — while turning slightly to the left.
The figure stands just off center, with a circular scattering of small colored dots above and to the right of his head. In the middle of this circle the name “Kierkegaard” is inscribed in simple script. Is this an imaginary portrait of the Dane in his youth, beginning his quest to understand the world?
Dr. Klaus Ottmann, art historian and the Phillips Collection’s deputy director for curatorial and academic affairs, ties the figure in Celaya’s painting to Abraham in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (1843), which revolves around the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Asked to sacrifice his son, Abraham finds himself, in Ottmann’s words, “in the in-between of nothingness and anxiety, between the Imaginary and the Symbolic, the ‘disquieting supervision of responsibility’” — a kind of limbo such as Celaya depicts in his painting.
In 2015, Celaya gave “The First Kierkegaard” to the Phillips Collection in honor of Ottmann. He was subsequently invited to be part of the One-on-One series, for the third exhibition since Ottmann launched the series in the spring of 2011, shortly after his arrival at the museum. [. . .] When Celaya visited the museum in 2015, Ottmann took him into the Phillips’s art storage and showed him a number of works, including several Albert Pinkham Ryder paintings. Celaya connected to the American painter on several fronts, including their shared use of tar (bitumen) in place of black paint. In addition, recounts Ottmann, the dark, mystical quality of Ryder’s works, with their religious underpinning, seemed “a fitting match for Celaya’s painting.”
Three of Ryder’s greatest works hang across the hallway from Celaya’s: “Macbeth and the Witches,” from the mid-1890s and later, “Desdemona,” 1896, and “Dead Bird,” 1890s. Without forcing a dialogue between Ryder and Celaya, you can make those aforementioned connections: the shared love of a richly worked surface and the ethereal quality of the imagery. (In 1926, Duncan Phillips, who was a champion of Ryder’s work, wrote that the painter was “always superbly plastic with simplification which contains powerful suggestions and persuades us to believe in the reality of his visions” — a commentary that could apply to Celaya.) [. . .]
[Image above: Detail of Enrique Martínez Celaya, “The First Kierkegaard” (2006), oil, wax, and tar on canvas, 100 x 78 inches, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of the artist in honor of Klaus Ottmann, 2015 (courtesy The Phillips Collection).]