A comment to the considerable dance post asks about others who might have written on Merton’s artistic works. Other than the books about Merton's photography, I am not aware of any other work that specifically discusses Merton's artistic endeavors. However I think that comments from Merton himself shed some light. Merton insisted that words and meaning not be applied to his art. And though he reluctantly supplied titles for the work that was exhibited at a Louisville college in 1964, he encouraged the viewer to look at them without judgement.
“Here is a collection of shapes, powers, flying beasts, cave animals, bloodstains, angelic mistakes, etc., that can perhaps have some visual effect on the local bisons. I suggest selling them for around ten bucks apiece …”
- Thomas Merton in a letter to Jim Forest, 1966
“These abstractions – one might almost call them graffiti rather than calligraphies – are simple signs and ciphers of energy, acts or movements intended to be propitious. Their “meaning” is not to be sought on the level of convention or of concept. These are not conventional signs as are words, numbers, hieroglyphs, or symbols. …”
“… they came to life when they did, in the form of reconciliations, as expressions of unique and unconscious harmonies appropriate to their own moment though not confined to it. But they do not register a past and personal experience, nor attempt to indicate playfully the passage of a special kind of artist, like footsteps in the snow.”
“In a world cluttered and programmed with an infinity of practical signs and consequential digits referring to business, law, government and war, one who makes such nondescript marks as these is conscious of a special vocation to be inconsequent, to be outside the sequence and to remain firmly alien to the program.”
“In effect these writings are decidedly hopeful in their own way in so far as they stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption and destruction, which does not however mean that they cannot be bought. Nevertheless it is clear that these are not legal marks. Nor are they illegal marks, since as far as law is concerned they are perfectly inconsequent. It is this and this alone which gives them a Christian character (Galatians 6), since they obviously do not fit into any familiar setting of religious symbolisms, liturgical or otherwise. But one must perhaps ask himself whether it has not now become timely for a Christian who makes a sign or mark of some sort to feel free about it, and not consider himself rigidly predetermined to a system of glyphs that have a long cultural standing and are fully consequential, even to the point of seeming entirely relevant in the world of business, law, government, and war.”
From Signatures: Notes on the Author’s Drawings, which accompanied a 1964 exhibition at Catherine Spalding College in Louisville.
"Do you know of some group, club, clique, cell or cultural enclave that would dare to associate its name with these drawings?"
-Thomas Merton in a letter to Ethel Kennedy, 1965