From Cage to Kabbalah; How an Artist Bridges the Gap

19 Jun

By Rivka Nehorai

Hamsa Dore, 2007. Printing on transparencies; metallic overprinting;
handwritten text; gold, crystal, glass beading; moonofilament. 5 3/4″ x 4″

“Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around… My responsibility (is) that of asking questions instead of making choices.”

So were the words and approach of composer, artist, and music theorist John Cage (related after an experiment of venturing into the anechoic chamber of Harvard University), whose guidance Claire Jeanine Satin received in the pivotal year of 1979, when she came face to face with the man whose I-Ching inspired philosophy profoundly impacted her own artistic outlook. Years earlier, in 1952, Cage had performed his controversial piece (especially for those who had paid to attend the concert) entitled ” 4’33’ “, which consisted of four minutes and thirty three seconds of him sitting on the piano bench but not playing. As Cage argued,  “There is no such thing as silence, there is always something that makes a sound.” The music, from his perspective, was not silence at all, but rather the sounds of the environment heard by the audience during the “performance”.

PENTIMENTO: Hamsa Historique II, 2010.  Printing on transparencies; metallic overprinting; gold, silver,crystal, glass beads, monofilament  8 1/2 x 6 in.


From Cage’s wisdom in correspondence with his questioning of the essence of music, came the rise of Claire’s fascination with indeterminacy. As she began to comprehend  the importance of intentionality and the interplay of the audience and the environment with the art object itself, the images she produced took hold of the viewer’s curiosity and senses in unpredictable ways. Satin employs Cage methods, insisting that the artist can “remove the ego from making choices, which may usually be an intellectual or intuitive choice and  by employing a chance system instead.. A simple example would be flipping a coin in order to present a choice the individual has not chosen.” In her case, she utilizes “the repeated overlaying (or multiplicity) of images and/or texts, allowing for interpenetration and unique configurations.”

Indeterminacy, as it relates to the visual art world, observes the  dialogue that occurs below the surface of the complex artist/art/viewer relationship. Each viewer  mixes in his own subjective background and memories with what is objectively on the canvas or sculptural form, transforming the physical image in his mind’s eye to something that relates to him. The art, therefore, occurs just as much in the mind of the viewer as it does in the physical object itself. This is particularly so  in the case of  vague, abstract objects that the mind must decipher and interpret.  It is in the lens of this delicate dance between the artist, the art, and the viewer that Satin approaches  her art production. In particular, Satin is interested in how her objects literally appear different physically at different times/angles.

Her materials in the latest exhibition include metallic overprinting; handwritten text; crystal, glass, silver beading; monofilamen. Her current Judaic work centers around hamsas and the Hebrew alphabet, and its delicate and exquisite interposing creates unexpected layers and effects.

As she explains about her latest work, “time, light (internal and external), and flux are the primary visual elements of the ongoing series Water Books. The transparency, which gives the works  their indeterminacy or chance quality is essential as time passes and changes occur.  All visuals can be seen simultaneously  or individually with light playing across surfaces or passing through. Small gems appear as light flickers on the surfaces and they are what visually fixes the individual pages to form a book structure.”

Most often, her artwork is represented in book form. Not surprisingly for the post-modern lens characteristic of Satin’s outlook, her definition of a book varies from the traditional understanding.”My work becomes a book the instant one recognizes its potential to read,” she explains, “Discarding the idea of the book as a linear form with a fixed sequence and narrative, my mode of ‘telling’ is to transform and reassemble visual and textual elements into new systems by manipulating and re-situating them into chance juxtapositions.”

Pentimento Kabbalah Book II (Fuchsia). Printing on transparencies; metallc overprinting; handwritten text; crystal, glass, silver beading; monofilamen. 8 1/2″ x 5 1/2



Satin’s connection with books and bookmaking coincided with around the same time as her John Cage encounter of ’79. “I became a very active supporter of libraries, helping to establish a countywide library system in Broward County Florida and finally to build a free standing library in 104 year old Dania Beach, the city I live in and where I have my My work with books and my first and second commissions to create public art installations for two libraries in Florida, further spurred my commitment to languages and their cultural histories and aesthetic beauty.  Then I also received a grant from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York to create a portfolio ‘The Spirit of The Hebrew Alphabet’ which is still in progress.”

Satin has had an incredibly prolific career, with exhibitions around the world and pieces in such collections as The Library of Congress, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Contemporary Art Center of Lithuania, and  The Fine Arts Academy of New Delhi, India.

Claire’s success within the art world began long before her interest in Judaic content. As she explains, ” I was not particularly involved in the practice of Judaism as integral part of my life until I became more deeply interested in the history of languages particularly in their aesthetic qualities.  And this was through my art, which is the spiritual part and meaning in my life.” Always interested in the interplay between the known and the unknown, Satin’s work investigates Kabbalistic teachings, using symbols of the ten Sefirot and kabbalistic texts. She explains the significance of of the subject matter as an investigation of “the relationship between the unchanging eternal and mysterious, called the Ein Sof (endless) and the finite universe.” In addition,  the image of the Hamsa, or the sign of the priestly blessing, frequently pervades her work.

“My interest in the Kabbalah and also my real exposure to it actually came as a result of my trip to Morocco and seeing the Mehendi (henna) designs so prevalent there.  From that experience I learned that the Judaic hand, the Hamsa, predates the Islamic hand, the Hand of Fatima.  So I began to see the pervasive icon of the hand symbol in so many of the histories of civilizations.  These are parallel and overlapping interests: the Kabbalah and the Hamsa.”

Pentimento: Open Wide Your Hands/ The Twelve Tribes, 2010. Printing on transparencies” metallic overprinting; crystal, jet, gold beads; monofilament. 8 1/2 x 6 in. Collection of Rare Books & Special
 Collections, Hebraic Section, The Library of Congress.


Satin’s fascination with the mystical power of unplanned possibilities comes across in her dramatic artwork. She offers a fable of a spider entranced by a centipede’s way of moving to encapsulate the elusive source and power of creativity.”Can  you tell me what leg you move after you use leg 83? and then what leg do you move after leg 14?” it asks. The centipede stopped dancing and sat down on a stone to think. After a while he got up to return to his dance, but found he could no longer dance.

“So there it is,” Satin concludes. ” There is always, in creativity, at least somewhat of a mystery as it will always be.”

As Cage and Satin would argue, if we can persuade ourselves to observe the mystery of life, looking and listening without forcing the moment, the moment will present itself to us as a thing of deeper beauty.


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