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When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
For the last six days I have been conversing with death’s agents, the ones milling outside that cottage of darkness that could soon belong to my mother. She’s still with us, but how much of her and for how long is indeterminate. When she does go, she won’t be sighing, she won’t be frightened, she won’t be full of argument. She may, in her own way, be showing all of us how it’s done.
There is something of the hermit about my kind of art making. I spend long hours alone in my studio. Sometimes I spend the entire day there without lifting a brush, just looking. There’s lots and lots of just looking.
There is also something of the hermet when we engage with grief or sorrow. I’m on that journey now, so my sense of that lonely, sacred place is even more heightened.
Nicole Long, friend and poet, introduced me to a website that is a resource for the hermetic tradition, Raven’s Bread. The following excerpt is from the site and brought me solace this morning:
A palindrome is a sequence of units that reads the same forward or back. Words like “radar” and “noon”. Phrases such as “damn mad!” Numbers. For example, ‘16461″ or “12/02/2021.” Even DNA – those spiraled threads that teach all life how to grow – even the nucleotides of our genetic coding can mirror each other. A recent genome sequencing project discovered that a palindromic structure allows the Y chromosome to repair itself by bending over at the middle so that a healthy twin can replace its damaged counterpart.
Which brings me to the dark, still night of contemplative prayer. “For you alone, my soul in silence waits.” For a long time I used this line when I prayed, sometimes repeating it like a mantra, sometimes settling into the silence and just letting the phrase arise when it would. The sentence paraphrases Psalm 130, and I can’t remember where I picked it up – a set of taped chants, perhaps? I’ve been praying it off and on for 20 years now, always as an expression of my silent waiting, always directed to a “you” who is God. But just the other day it came to me, in a quiet eureka moment: the “you” is “me” and the one waiting in silence for me is God. We are all palindromes. Our divine twin forever bends over us repairing the damage to our true nature.
This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Thank you Sally Rubin for sending this poem my way. It was the perfect thing for me to read right now.
If you are a Diebenkorn fan (as I am,) you will be dazzled by the new catalog for a show currently on view at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico (though September 9, 2007.) The show features work from Diebenkorn’s two and a half year residence in Albuquerque in the early 1950s, and many of these images are being seen for the first time. They are lush.
Gerald Nordland is a well known expert on Diebenkorn, and he has written one of the three essays in the catalog. I found this passage particularly provocative in light of the ongoing discussion of Diebenkorn’s relationship to landscape (something I have written about earlier on this blog):
The Albuquerque paintings generally evidence a brighter-than-before palette of sandy and flesh colors; looping and energetic line; and rhythmic boldness to deposits of color-form which developed out of improvisations, revisions, and transitions. They have a toughness and a tenderness that reflect the Northern New Mexico landscape. Diebenkorn’s roughness of execution conforms to his distaste for finish, apparent in the segmentation of forms at the canvas edge, and his wish to reflect facture and materials. The directness became a positive element of his style. The natural phenomena that filtered into these creations are remote.
This body of work has been referred to incorrectly as Diebenkorn’s “abstract landscape” manner, for it implies that these works are somehow translated into abstractions from nature. Diebenkorn did say, “Temperamentally, perhaps I had always been a landscape painter, but I was fighting the landscape feeling; in Albuquerque I relaxed and began to think of natural forms in relation to my own feelings.”
Note: Many thanks to my lifelong friend Kevin Simmers for finding the catalog and bringing it to my attention. We have been paired in a passionate devotion to Diebenkorn’s work since we saw a show of his Ocean Park series while we were in college. All these years later and that passion has not cooled in either of us.
I’ve pulled down a few books from my library about primitive art. I am looking for some clues or insights into a personal question that has been lingering for some time: Why are non-Western, non-contextualized images increasingly compelling to me? Perhaps this can’t be parsed into logic and language–that’s a conclusion I’ve come to many times before–but there is pleasure in the search.
In the course of this casual research, I have had some moments of “that’s not it.” Shelly Errington’s book, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress is Foucaultian and readable (yes, that is a combination that does exist in nature!) But here’s a passage that speaks to my divergence from her point of view:
My position is that artifacts themselves are mute and meaningless. Their meanings are created by the categories they fall into and the social practices that produce and reproduce those categories.
To put it more dramatically: Discourses create objects. A “discourse” is not just a way of talking about things. Discourses materialize and narrativize categories by creating institutions and using media that illustrate, support, confirm, and naturalize their dominant ideas. Objects may physically preexist those discourses and their institutions, and they may persist beyond them; but, appropriated by new institutions, their meanings are remade and they are transformed into new kinds of objects.
Eddington takes this argument further:
In his book on art collecting, Joseph Alsop calls the art market a “by-product” of art. I would reverse the causality implied in that statement, arguing that “art” is produced and reproduced by the art market rather than causing it.
There are certainly a number of examples in the world of art where Eddington’s description is fitting. But I can think of many examples where this discourse-driven, “mute object” view does not . Eddington is, after all, an anthropologist, not an artist or art historian. The possibility of a powerful reaction or connection to an object or artifact, with or without an accompanying discourse or context, is a steady state of mind for most artists. The thing itself, (German Ding-an-sich) is something altogether different from the words, the social practice, the marketplace. And like many things in life, if you haven’t had that experience, words just aren’t going to get you there.
I’m now in the last lap of preparing for my show that opens in Provincetown on July 20th. The last few weeks have been a kind of silence retreat, intensity without a spoken language component. And something does shift for me when visual language becomes the dominant modality for an extended period of time.
When my son was 16, he went on a no talking, no writing, no reading retreat for a month. The decision amazed me at the time, and still does. Shortly after he returned home, he was scheduled to go to Alice Springs in Australia to spend time in the Outback. A colleague who has spent a lot of time with Australian Aboriginals told me that going to this retreat right before leaving on his trip was probably the best preparation my son could have taken. “Aboriginals are very distrustful of language. They have a different method of knowing. Their response to most white folks is ‘Stop talking so I can find out who you really are.'”
That’s a good description of where I’m at right now. Silence seems the better entry.
Someone Should Start Laughing
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
How are you?
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
What is God?
If you think that the Truth can be known
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,
O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly Laughing–
Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Every once in a while a comment made on this blog is so good it needs to be called out, front and center. That’s true of a comment made by one of my favorite bloggers, the author of Joe Felso: Ruminations, in response to the posting about Roger Kimball’s article in The New Criterion, directly below. As always, his insights inspire and his language clarifies:
A great article. Thanks for pointing it out. I’m a pluralist too, and this jeremiad seemed a little mean-spirited—though you have to wonder how a jeremiad could avoid being so.
Still, the definition of art he prefers—”mastery of a craft in order to make objects that gratify and ennoble those who see them”—does arouse some nostalgia in me for a time when pleasing the senses (instead of exciting, repelling, or rebuking them) wasn’t hopelessly naive.
In poetry, the modernists are responsible for art that is “indistinguishable from the verbal noise that accompanies it,” but that has done little to change public taste and much to discredit poetry as obdurate and pretentious.
The real casualty in “the domestication of deviance, and its subsequent elevation as an object of aesthetic” is, as Kimball so smartly points out, art itself.
And I would call it, as he does, a tragedy, except that art seems finally invulnerable to our fashions. Some artists will always be immune or, more accurately, attuned to contemporary modes AND eternal ones.
Roger Kimball, Managing Editor of The New Criterion and author of The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, has published a jeremiad about the state of the art world. It’s not that he’s saying anything that hasn’t been said by others, but the piece is a concise outline of the major issues that are cleaving the art world into warring factions. His starting point is the inaugural show in a new museum space at Bard College, but he could have teed off on any number of recent exhibits. (Read the full article here or an excerpted version on my blog Slow Painting.)
I’m pluralist enough to want all forms of expression to have a chance for a voice. The main issue for me regarding a lot of activities of the “insider” art world (the art mafia if you will) is the hegemony that inevitably shuts out other points of view. That’s the main reason I started blogging–to speak to issues I don’t think get enough air time.
As for a fix to the state of things, Kimball doesn’t offer much, not even a palliative. The organic view that a pendulum swing rectifies extreme positions over time—similar to the economic concept of a market correction—isn’t getting my vote. And given the increasingly overheated environment where money and hype seem to be in endless supply, I’m not sure where all of this will take us or how long this particular rocket shot will keep arcing upwards.
Deliberately low-keyed art often resembles ruins, like neolithic rather than classical monuments, amalgams of past and future, remains of something “more,” vestiges of some unknown venture. The ghost of content continues to hover over the most obdurately abstract art. The more open, or ambiguous, the experience offered, the more the viewer is forced to depend upon his [sic] own perceptions.
Lucy R. Lippard, from Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972
I’m a long time fan of Lippard’s books, particularly Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society and The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art. This particular excerpt goes back a few years, from one of Lippard’s curatorial ventures into conceptual art. And yet the quote feels timeless and is still compelling for “artifact makers”* like me (in spite of Lippard’s claim that content persistently haunts most abstract art, a point of view I do not share.) Neolithic ruins. Vestiges of some unknown venture. Amalgams of past and future. These phrases provoke, incite, delight, enchant, and lights start flashing and flickering somewhere in my consciousness the moment I read them. Throe of wonder perhaps, since I have never tried to parse out what it is about these particular concepts that elicit such a powerful response. Leaving it in the unknown seems just fine.
*There are many phrases in use to distinguish between conceptual artists and those that build, make or create an object. This is just one.