“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.” – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Here is a portrait of a man on the brink of oblivion. Like all great art, this piece expands the conventional bounds of its genre, transcending the strictly figurative representation that was the function of late twentieth century baseball card portraiture with both the abstract wash of colors in the background and the apparent slight but jarring distortion of the body in the foreground. The figure, “Wise,” seems to have unusually long legs and wide hips in relation to the short torso and short arms, this distortion of the human form a seeming allusion to the powerful-legged, spindly-armed Tyrannosaurus Rex, which in turn gives the portrait overtones of great, fearsome power nullified by the certainty of extinction. This theme of extinction is furthered in the blurring in the background of what viewers at the time of the artwork would understand contextually to be the crowd, a gathering assembled for the purpose of cheering for and cursing and exalting and even in a crude way praying for and thus making sacred game-playing participants such as the one pictured here, “Wise.” The blurring of all faces in the crowd, coupled with the look of apprehension on the face of Wise and the aforementioned anatomical distortion of his features, creates a sense of ending, of things once solid melting into air. No faces can be seen in the crowd, only here and there among the shapeless colors small soft-edged spheres, the motif perhaps an attempt on the part of the artist to contradict the allusions to the famous quote above with intimations of an afterlife, as if the orbs were souls able to carry something of the individual beyond the inevitable cessation of earthly life, of flesh. Less ambiguous than the mysterious orbs is the fate of the central figure, Wise, whose allegorical name in this context, coupled with his obvious inability to cease the dissipation of the crowd (and, by extension, the dissipation of meaning, for what is a game with no crowd?) seems to offer a bracing commentary on the limitations of the rational mind, of human wisdom. There will come a moment when all we know won’t mean anything. Wise seems to be verging on this moment. He is either looking around to see if there is anywhere where things are still solid or he is looking back, trying to find a place and time he can cling to, something that will never melt into air.
If he is looking back, what is the object of his gaze? What can we cling to in our last moment? The portrait offers no clue, but on the back of this card (where artisans who created these works supplemented the portraits on the front of the cards with intricate numerology and text), there is a cartoon of a ballplayer without thick glasses and with a broad smile (free of limitations and sadness), looking at a scoreboard that tells the tale of a victory. Above the cartoon is the following line of text, which according to experts in the interpretation of the back of the card numerology is exceedingly far-fetched, the stuff of a fairy tale, suggesting that all we have in the end are fairy tales, slim, brilliant moments that are too good to ever have been true:
“Rick hurled no-hitter for Phillies vs. Reds, 6-23-71, and hit 2 homers in the game.”