The Enduring Vision – and Optimism – of Eyes

In an era marked by dishonesty, what of the age-old assumption that the eyes cannot lie?

Charles White, Gideon, 1951, black and white lithograph on paper, 51 x 39 cm. Courtesy: The Charles White Archives Inc and the Art Institute of Chicago

Charles White, Gideon, 1951, black and white lithograph on paper, 51 x 39 cm. Courtesy: The Charles White Archives Inc and the Art Institute of Chicago

Look me in the eyes. I see it in your eyes. Before my very eyes. There is an age-old assumption that the eyes cannot lie, nor can they be lied to. In Ancient Egypt, the Eye of Horus, also known as the ‘whole one’, was an icon of protection and health. The omnipotent Argus Panoptes, a giant of Greek mythology in both status and stature, had either four or 100 eyes, depending on your source. ‘The eye is the lamp of the body,’ Jesus proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. Prolonging the ocularist surrealist doctrine, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí maintained that the eye was the gateway to reality, hence their attempts to savage it. (If you will humour a muddling of poetic speculation with modern-day science, it should be noted that iris scans remain the most accurate form of biometrics.)

The New Yorker is rather smitten with blue eyes. In the cases of Vitalik Buterin, the co-founder of computing platform Ethereum, Becky, a resident of an Ohio centre for dementia patients, and Abby Stewart, a trans woman who underwent facial-feminization surgery, it is a ‘vivid blue’. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s eyes are ‘arctic-blue’; the drone racer Zachry Thayer’s, ‘wizardly blue’; and those of Astrid Holleeder, the sister of a Dutch crime boss, ‘swimming-pool blue’. The eyes of marine biologist Rachel Carson curdled ‘both the green and blue of sea water.’ But, as just eight percent of the world’s population have blue eyes, it is only natural that, on occasion, the magazine reaches for its colour chart. A resident of the Institut Villa Pierrefeu finishing school has ‘amber eyes’; Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s mother, Janet, ‘hazel eyes’; and Ada, the wife and long-time muse of Alex Katz, ‘wide-set, dark eyes’. Suitably, Wolfgang Tillmans has ‘unblinking brown eyes that seem to notice everything’. The floral designer Lewis Miller has ‘eyes the colour of forget-me-nots’.

Debbie Harry, as she is limned in Andy Warhol’s 1980 portrait, boasts a similar shade, albeit one offset by a sharp electric pink. The work, a sizzling neon silkscreen that takes the name of Blondie’s chief crooner as its title, is currently watching over New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the exhibition ‘Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again’. But this past winter, eyes blinked from every shadowy recess of New York’s institutions. In Charles White’s drawings at his Museum of Modern Art retrospective, irises were steeped in blacks as oil-deep and plush as those drenching the pupils. At the Brooklyn Museum, as part of ‘Soul of a Nation’, Betye Saar’s curling leather Eye (1972) was framed by two polka dot lids, while at the Jewish Museum, Martha Rosler lowered a photograph from the Vietnam War upon a glossy advertising shot of a white woman applying eye shadow (Makeup/Hands Up, c.1967–72). The opening scene of Bruce Nauman’s video Poke in the Eye/Nose/Ear 3/8/94 Edit (1994), at MoMA PS1, saw the artist, in sadistically slow motion, undertake the titular. ‘It’s probably more painful for the viewer than it was for me,’ he said. Eyes intact, I remain unconvinced.

When The New Yorker summons the hue of its subjects’ irises, Saar crops all but the vitality of a lone black eye and Nauman captures the survivalist shuttering of a lid, they bypass the cheap deceptions of profile and personality, susceptible as they are to corruption, and draft a portrait that is markedly honest. And, of late, honesty is not something that we have done well. We are misled by those charged with leadership, deceived by those entrusted with dispensing truth and assured by our own naive homocentrism that we are deserving of the continuation of the world. We are misinformed, hoodwinked, bamboozled; forced to weather times so besotted with falsity that falsity itself threatens to assume the role of the norm. We are pushed, over and again once more, to peek through pulled-down wool.

It is tough, within this, to persist. And it is tough, within this, to trust. Set down in a domain increasingly defined by its own lack of definition, it is a trial to stoke the dwindling fires of conviction, faith, hope, humour and any other synonym that might signify something akin to well-being. But, cast adrift within the malaise of it all, one could do worse than think of the eyes. Of the vivid blue, the arctic-blue, the wizardly blue. Of the amber, the hazel, the unblinking brown that seems to notice everything. One could do worse than to remember that, however weathered and worn the face of life may become, an optic glimmer might twinkle still. It is not, as is said, that the eyes are the window to the soul but, rather, a metaphorical aide-mémoire of a tireless something else that will forever speak its colour. ‘I like you,’ Anne Sexton wrote to Anne Clarke in 1964, with blissful immaturity, ‘your eyes are full of language.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 201 with the headline ‘Seeing In The Dark’

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

Issue 201

First published in Issue 201

March 2019

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