Zen Art: Contemplating the Eternal / by Chris Hall

A moment seems to be an extremely small segment of a long span of time.  Yet past is remembered as past in the present moment and future is expected as future in the present moment.  Each moment carries all of time. Thus a moment has an aspect of timelessness.  In this respect “now” is eternal.  Kazuaki Tanahashi, 13th century Zen master.  

A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places. Paul Gardner


Enso is a Japanese word meaning circle and is a word strongly associated with Zen.  The enso symbolizes enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and the void and is meant to be an expression of the moment.  It is widely believed that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how one paints the enso and that only a mentally and spiritually whole artist can paint a true enso.  Many artists practice making the enso daily as a kind of spiritual diary.  Some artists choose to close the circle, while others choose to leave it open.  Both variations symbolize different things.  A closed enso might symbolize completion, unity, or strength.  An open enso may suggest that it part of and not separate from the universe or maybe that imperfection is an essential and inherent aspect of existence.  Imperfection is an aesthetic I often cultivate in my own art, not just with notions of Zen wabi-sabi, but also as a symbol of human frailties and flaws.  

I think of the enso whenever I see one of Adolph Gottleib’s “Burst” paintings.  While Gottlieb is not referencing the enso directly, they are superficially similar, and, I believe the spirit behind the work is still the same.  Gottlieb’s work is about searching for the timeless moment in the sublime, about the universal void, and about searching for spiritual truths.  

It is also worth noting that both the enso and Gottlieb’s work might be related to the alchemical symbol of the ouroboros, the serpent devouring its own tail.  Among other things, the ouroboros was meant to symbolize the concept of eternal return and the endlessness of time.

An ouroboros by Theodoros Pelecanos 1478.  It is a copy of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius.