These pictures do not try to make a point. They do not demonstrate anything. They seek to respond to some often not particularly memorable objects, a rock formation, a seashell, roots, flowers, fruit, garbage, and especially the sea.
I have always liked to draw. Nothing of these early efforts has survived, except for a picture that I did in 1946 in bombed-out Munich. It was done for an exhibition of children’s art: we third graders had been asked to contrast the present with the past we remembered. In those difficult years I spent quite a bit of time in Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Especially Caspar David Friedrich’s Riesengebirgslandschaft cast its spell. I spent many hours before it.
But more important to my visual education was something else. When I was seven — that was in 1944 and the war had made Berlin a rather unpleasant place with almost nightly bombing raids — my father decided that we had to leave; and he wanted us to be conquered by the Americans. So he found us a place in the Franconian Königshofen to await the end of the war. Outside that town is a small rococo pilgrimage church, Mariä Geburt. It made a deep impression. That church was the beginning of a life-long love affair with the Bavarian rococo. It was reinforced when we settled in Munich, and I loved hiking through the Isar valley to the abbey church in Schäftlarn. My fascination with the Bavarian rococo shows itself in an ink drawing I did of the interior of this church at the time. I must have been thirteen or so. It is among the few things of this period that I kept. Many years later this love led me to write The Bavarian Rococo Church: Between Faith and Aestheticism (1983), which I followed up with an expanded German version: Die Bayerische Rokokokirche. Das Irrationale und das Sakrale (2009). The Bavarian rococo church has shaped my thinking about art.
When I was an undergraduate at Yale, my interests turned to history and philosophy, although I never stopped painting. A course in freehand drawing I took with Josef Albers — if I remember, Richard Lytle and Neil Welliver were the teaching assistants — taught me a great deal. So it is not surprising that soon after I began teaching here at Yale in 1961, I should have taught a course on modern art. The notes for that course evolved into my first book, The Meaning of Modern Art(1968).
But by that time drawing and painting had ceased to be a very important part of my life, no more than a pleasant diversion. Some of the results pleased me enough to give them to family members or hang in our house. Two of these, an orange view of the church in Avioth and a somewhat Feiningerish blue image of the start of a sailboat race, were stolen out of my office in Connecticut Hall, when I was chairman of the philosophy department. A dean suspected members of a Secret Society. It would be nice if on this occasion they were magically to reappear.
I paint very little now, except when my wife Elizabeth Langhorne and I are in our place on Vieques. It seems almost prophetic that a tempera copy of a black-and-white photograph of a palm tree that I found — I was thirteen then — in a German edition of sea stories by Jack London, which in its caption mentioned Culebra, could almost be an image of a palm tree that we now see from our house, from which we can also see Culebra. The vast majority of the pictures shown here were done on Vieques, most in the past few years. They owe their existence to Elizabeth.
While Elizabeth snorkels, I engage what is before me in a kind of conversation that is also a meditation. I make no attempt to faithfully capture what I see, but attempt to respond to it with something that in its way can stand up to what is before me.
Born in Jena, Germany, in 1937, Karsten Harries came to the US in 1951. Trained at Yale University, where he is the Howard H. Newman Professor of Philosophy, he has taught here since 1961, interrupted only by two years at the University of Texas in Austin and a number of years spent in Germany.