In this composition, which some interpret as a self-portrait, the elements of an enigmatic tabletop still life lock tightly into place, overlapping like a collage or as if pulled together by a central magnetic force. Although the yellow vessel on the right inches precariously off the table’s surface, there is a sense of balance.
The angular base of the table and the graphic symbols that rise vertically on the left suggest the roughly hewn wooden bases Brancusi made for his sculptures, or his Endless Column. While the elements of the still life remain unidentified, they appear heavy with significance, presided over by the single watchful eye of the alchemist.
In centuries past, alchemy was concerned with the transmutation of elements and the search for an elixir that could grant immortality. Art has the power to confer a certain form of immortality: as Penn said in 1972, “The fascination of photography is to make an image that will survive me, to record something that has moved me and that can. . . move other people, people whom I have never met.” Throughout his career, Penn welcomed the occasions when precision and control were met with unexpected revelations, acknowledging the importance of chance for invention. Like a totem, the figure of the alchemist resonates with Penn’s experience of the elusive and, at times, seemingly magical process of creation.
The sketch for this work is very small: made in graphite on a slip of notepad paper, it measures only 6 × 4 inches. Penn scanned the drawing to make an enlarged inkjet print approximately four times larger, which he then worked over in watercolor, sand, and gum arabic. Although the composition was already complete in the small sketch, Penn made significant changes by increasing the scale, transforming the texture and tone of the lines, and animating the work with color.