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I’m off to New York for a few days. I want to see the Mannerist drawing show at the Morgan Library, most particularly out of respect for my daughter Kellin who is a Mannerista fanatic now that she is living in Florence. (To read an excerpt from the New York Times review of this show, see this Slow Painting post.) I am also eager to satisfy my perpetual longing for real time Stoppardian word magic, delivered up through a viewing of his latest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll.)
Here’s another memorable poem from Young Smith’s volume, In a City You Will Never Visit (for more information, see my posting on this poet earlier this week):
The Properties of Light
vii. the many worlds interpretation
so the musing
is a siphon
the distant borders
of our own.
Just as black holes
are also siphons,
from our own stars
to burst as quasars
in other distant
it seems, the “causa
causans” is a mind
the sky. Whose
desires, like its
bear no human
scale or story–whose
musing only light
An unforgettable exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Photos of Silicon Valley by Milan-based architect and photographer Gabriele Basilico.
Having grown up in the Bay Area, I remember well when the Valley was mostly apricot orchards and vegetable farms. But Basilico’s images do not sentimentalize the past or assault the viewer with a harsh, urban, edgy vision. These photographs are quiet–almost apocalyptically silent–and most of them capture a people-free version of a region that has become notoriously overpopulated, overtraffiked and drenched in a smug layer of “we’re just a little smarter (and richer) than everyone else” self satisfaction.
That isn’t what captures Basilico’s eye however. Instead he discovers what urban theorist Manuel Castells calls the “space of flows.” As described by Jeff Byles in Modern Painters magazine:
That’s what you see beyond the galvanized steel guardrails. That is the informational city, a land of virtual networks ever more severed from their social context…Check out Basilico’s view of US Highway 101 gashing through the flat valley in ominous shades of black and white, a vast parking lot to the left, an empty field to the right. Transmission wires arc low across the sky and trail into the distance. This is the space of flows. On the horizon sit carceral towers, the seeming prison houses of software engineers and product managers. Latent in the image are layers of spatial data: vestigial scraps of nature; the low, defining hills; cars streaking along the highway, their own vectors in the landscape.
Byles goes on to draw specifically from the writings of Castells:
This is where the social meaning of place evaporates… “There is no tangible oppression,” Castells wrote of the informational city, “no identifiable enemy, no center of power that can be held responsible for specific social issues.” There are just flows. Input, output: service stations and taco stands.
Basilico’s photographs capture a centerless, ambient foreboding that something here isn’t right. How he does this is beguiling and mysterious. And he achieves it without resorting to manipulative gestures or a need to patronize the viewer. These images feel fresh. Raw, yes, but starkly fresh.
Perhaps it is his method of work: “To slow down vision,” Basilico wrote, “was for me a small revolution in the way of seeing.” In Byles’ view, the emptiest photographs are the most powerful. “Basilico is the de Chrico of sprawl.” Well put.
To view the Basilico images in the SFMOMA show, click here.
Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed — the broken
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
it feels like, gay!
And if you are so inclined, here is a short commentary on the poem by Lloyd Schwartz, co-editor of the new Library of America volume on Bishop:
“Sonnet,” with its unusually short lines, is a playfully bottom-heavy inversion of the traditional sonnet form. Bishop’s octave (including two images of being “freed”) follows rather than precedes the sestet, with its two images of being “caught” (thereby giving more room to being free than to being trapped). Many of the rhymes (and delicious half rhymes) come not where you’d expect them or where they’re supposed to be — that is, the rhyming pair doesn’t always appear at the end of a line: “bird” rhymes with “freed”; “rainbow” and “narrow” fall mid-line; the rhyme in “thermometer’s mercury” comes at the beginning rather than at the end of the words. Like the “moon in the bureau mirror” in her poem “Insomnia” (1951), which looks out at a world “inverted,” the newfound freedom depicted in “Sonnet” (including a liberation from traditional form) presents a topsy-turvy solution, an upside-down resolution, that doesn’t fit the usual formula.
This solution, this resolution, is death — the solution to all conflict, to all illness, to all decision-making, to all the claims and pulls that upset the balance of one’s life. The more you know about Bishop, the more directly autobiographical this poem begins to seem. She was, like the bubble in the spirit level, “a creature divided,” both accepting and nervous about her homosexuality (she said she wanted to restore the last word of the poem, “gay!,” to what she called its “original” non-sexual meaning), needing to drink yet ashamed of her self-destructive compulsion (in the version of the poem published in The New Yorker, the line “a creature divided” appears as “contrarily guided”). She loved living in Brazil, away from New York literary politics and gossip, yet it was hard for her to be separated from her native country and language, and from the recognition of her admirers. “Dear, my compass/still points North,” begins a love poem she wrote in Brazil but never published, still wavering about her true home. And she was never completely convinced that her poems had any lasting value.
The “rainbow-bird” in the last and most complex image of “Sonnet” is clearly self-referential. “Rainbow” is a key Bishop word. Her most famous poem, “The Fish,” ends with the ecstatic “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” (and with another one of her rare exclamation points), as she prepares to set free the tremendous fish she caught (another trapped creature). In “Song for the Rainy Season,” her love poem about the house she and her Brazilian companion were living in way up in the mountains outside of Rio, she calls the landscape “rainbow-ridden.”
Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
The most poignant — and frightening — image in “Sonnet” is the empty mirror. Always shy and self-conscious, Bishop hated the way she looked, hated looking at herself. She’d grown heavier from the years of cortisone she had to take for her asthma; her hair had turned gray. She felt old and bloated, though everyone else thought she looked more elegant than ever. I was visiting her the day her copy of Richard Howard’s coffee-table anthology Preferences arrived, with a beautiful full-page photograph of her by Thomas Victor. She excused herself, went into her bedroom, and tore the page with the photograph out of the book. She would have preferred to look into an empty mirror, even given the sinister implications.
Bishop had been plagued by various illnesses all her life, from persistent eczema (like a pink dog?) to the chronic, sometimes life-threatening asthma for which she was repeatedly hospitalized. In the 1970s her beloved Aunt Grace, in Nova Scotia, was showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Bishop was morbidly worried about an old age of illness after lingering illness, and was terrified of becoming senile. I think if she could have known that she would die of an aneurysm, suddenly and without warning, at sixty-eight, as she was putting on her shoes to go out to dinner, she’d have lived a happier life.
Though she had been in relatively good health at the time she wrote “Sonnet,” dying seemed increasingly on her mind. In these lines from another unpublished love poem, “Breakfast Song,” from 1974, she wrote:
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I’ve grown accustomed to?
— Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it’s true.
It’s just the common case;
there’s nothing one can do.
Here she raises the disturbing idea that someone might actually want to die. But — in love — she talks herself out of it. “Breakfast Song” reveals feelings, especially sexual feelings, that were probably too personal for Bishop to allow herself to make public. In “Sonnet,” however, she finally confronts, though with characteristic indirectness, her death wish, her desire for the freedom death brings.
To hear several different poets read “Sonnet”, go to Soundings.
The Library of America has just released a new volume on Elizabeth Bishop. I have several others from the LOA series and find the quaintness of these publications comforting–the smaller size, the simple glossy black cover, the onionskin-thin paper, the bookmark cord supplied for you to employ immediately at your favorite spot. Having this carefully selected compilation of her poems, prose and letters all in one simple and elegant volume feels like a miniature universe.
Robert Pinsky wrote a review recently and praised the editorial choices made by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz. Here’s an excerpt:
Certain great art establishes only gradually the kind of wide, deep appeal known as “classic.” Such art may be perceived at first as merely popular, like the work of William Shakespeare and Duke Ellington, and eventually acquire critical esteem. Other works may at first appear peculiar and arcane, like those of Vincent van Gogh or Emily Dickinson, and then for later generations come to seem universally, immediately appealing.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poems have taken a middle course, quietly attracting a diverse following that has grown steadily…Bishop’s “One Art” may be the most quoted and most memorized poem in many generations. And it, too, is sometimes reproduced without legal permission, in blogs or albums. Bishop’s poetry has been set to music by distinguished composers like Elliott Carter, and it has been incorporated into trashy pop songs. Academic critics and high school students, feminists and curmudgeons, fellow poets as different as Frank O’Hara and James Merrill – all have embraced this sharp-edged, slyly elegant work, with its way of interlacing the domestic and the volcanic…
Bishop’s great characteristic subject: the pulsing, rock-melting heat and pressure inside a person, under the thin, still crust of custom. Even her love poems are about isolation, tentatively or temporarily overcome…
Fascinated by a dull, normal, genteel world she could imitate but never really join, Bishop wrote in a super-refined, transformed version of that world’s speech. Thanks to the meticulous editing of Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz, her range and peculiarity are demonstrated in this volume that puts Bishop’s poetry into the context of her essays, stories, and personal correspondence.
The book supplies a satisfying sense of knowing the poet and an equally satisfying sense of inexhaustible, mysterious genius, flashing by before it can be entirely defined.
(You can read the full review on Slate.)
J. M. Coetzee. I am in awe of his work, even though its textures, angles and palettes are so different from my own creative matrix. In a very readable New Yorker review by James Wood of Coetzee’s new book Diary of a Bad Year, I found a few passages that are just too good to keep to myself.
Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones?
My point of view exactly. I have never understood the high value placed on unrelenting (and unenlightening) consistency.
Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name of this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces wisdom.
In the last entry of this novel [Diary of a Bad Year], “On Dostoevsky,” Senor C writes:
“I read again last night the fifth chapter of the second part of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, the chapter in which Ivan hands back his ticket of admission to the universe God has created, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably.”
It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of the anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books make all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.
Coetzee is SO Dostoyevskian, something I had not named until Wood stated it so clearly. And such a rarity for a writer at this point in our history.
Here’s a ray of hope on the Spiral Jetty preservation front. This article by Patty Henetz appeared on February 21 in The Salt Lake Tribune (and presents a much more hopeful view than a similar piece that ran in the other Salt Lake paper, The Deseret News.)
Artists outraged at the possibility of oil drilling near the Spiral Jetty have inundated state agencies with e-mail protests. Now they have a new advocate: the Utah Department of Community and Culture.
The department is working closely with the Department of Natural Resources, which is now reviewing an application from a Canadian company to set up drilling barges and oil rigs in the lake’s Little Valley Harbor, five miles southwest of Rozel Point and the Spiral Jetty.
“This is very important,” said Palmer DePaulis, Community and Culture executive director and a former mayor of Salt Lake City. “We want to represent the [art community’s] interests so everyone’s voice can be heard.”
State agencies have received more than 3,500 letters and e-mails from artists and conservationists around the world who thought the threat to Robert Smithson’s massive earthworks piece was out of harm’s way under a year-old settlement.
In May 2006, conservation groups including Western Resource Advocates, the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, Friends of Great Salt Lake and Great Salt Lake Audubon reached a settlement with the state that pulled back oil and gas leases in the northwest arm of the lake. The agreement covered 116,000 acres, but left out 55,000 acres.
But it turns out that Pearl Montana Exploration and Production LTD of Calgary, Alberta, holds three 2003 leases on the exempt acres. On Jan. 11, the company submitted to Oil, Gas and Mining an application to drill two wells from barges anchored in the lake.
Natural Resources executive director Mike Styler said today that review of the drilling application would include examining the company’s plans for spill control, blowout prevention and other safeguards.
DePaulis said his agency got involved because thousands of the letters of opposition were coming to the state museums and art division. The move to cooperate with DNR was a mutual effort between the two agencies, he said.
Smithson’s 1,500-foot-long basalt and soil earthworks sculpture that coils in the Great Salt Lake is an artwork of global significance. Drilling in the area occurred before and after Smithson finished his work in 1970.
The state must honor mineral rights. But leases can be canceled if the operator violates the lease terms, or if the state decides there is “imminent significant irreversible threat to the public trust” guaranteed in the Utah Constitution.
I’ll keep you posted.
She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul
(Mrs. Morninghouse, after a Sermon Entitled,
“What the Spirit Teaches Us through Grief”)
The shape of her soul is a square.
She knows this to be the case
because she sometimes feels its corners
pressing sharp against the bone
just under her shoulder blades
and across the wings of her hips.
At one time, when she was younger,
she had hoped that it might be a cube,
but the years have worked to dispel
this illusion of space. So that now
she understands: it is a simple plane:
a shape with surface, but no volume—
a window without a building, an eye
without a mind.
Of course, this square
does not appear on x-rays, and often,
weeks may pass when she forgets
that it exists. When she does think
to consider its purpose in her life,
she can say only that it aches with
a single mystery for whose answer
she has long ago given up the search—
since that question is a name which can
never quite be asked. This yearning,
she has concluded, is the only function
of the square, repeated again and again
in each of its four matching angles,
until, with time, she is persuaded anew
to accept that what it frames has no
interest in ever making her happy.
The poet Young Smith is new to me. This poem, featured recently on Poetry Daily, captures an elusive but familiar state of mind. Some of these lines haunt: “a shape with surface, but no volume—/a window without a building, an eye/without a mind.”
This poem is included in Smith’s volume, In a City You Will Never Visit. Below are a few other poets’ responses to the book.
Young Smith has composed a subtle, intelligent, spare book with the cleanliness of good prose. “In a City You Will Never Visit” threads two long sequences (a suicide story, and a metaphysical meditation on light) among individual poems of tantalizing variety. With their moral syllogisms and gnomic tone, they might have come from Eastern Europe—an Eastern Europe we will never visit, a city of the mind.
Somewhere between the merciless ironies of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge and the aching metaphysical comedy of Zbigniew Herbert resides Young Smith, a student of the elusive nature of the real. “In a City You Will Never Visit” is an unexpected fusion of pleasures: a sequence of poems that accumulate with the weight of a novel, a lyric meditation on the behavior of light, and a study of the forms of longing—all of which Smith braids together into a fresh and striking debut.
There is an arrestingly ethereal quality to Young Smith’s poems as they navigate their numinous territory, where things that once seemed most familiar are revealed to be least controllable and comprehensible. Smith’s voices are troubled by tricks of light playing on objects that turn out to be merely the manifestations of our own witness, ‘made of notion’s fabric.’ I find myself drawn to these poems and their strategy of radiant patience in confronting what seems always to be almost just this side of unfathomable.
—J. Allyn Rosser
How refreshing to find an art “feel good” counter story in the New York Times, especially one that offers pre-coverage of the ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, “I can’t wait to hate it” Whitney Biennial. This piece made me feel hope, like someone opened a window in a stale, stuffy room with tired furniture and too many people talking loud.
The values in this article mirror many of my own. And since this point of view typically doesn’t get much air time, I am savoring this rare expression of authenticity and stand alone integrity. It also draws a sharp contrast to Terry Teachout’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about artists who lose their gifts when they get caught up in self-importance. (An excerpt of Teachout’s piece can be read on Slow Painting.)
I’d like to think that this point of view is the bellwether for a new and more meaningful set of art signifiers.
Fritz Haeg is not the best-known artist in the Whitney Biennial, opening next month. He has not had a breakout solo show at the Zach Feuer Gallery. He is not being wooed by Larry Gagosian. His prices at auction are nonexistent.
“I don’t even sell work,” he said with a laugh.
But in an art world growing jaded with such signifiers, Mr. Haeg, an architect by training and a landscaper by nature, may end up the surprise star of the Whitney show. Among the “homes” he designed for 12 “clients” are a beaver lodge and pond for the sculpture court, an eagle’s nest over the entry and other cribs around the museum for a mud turtle, mason bees, a flying squirrel, a bobcat and other critters that once lived on the Upper East Side.
Given that Madison Avenue is one of the world’s fanciest shopping streets, you would think Mr. Haeg is casting stones. In 2005, for his first nature-ruption series, “Edible Estates,” he replanted front lawns in places from Salina, Kan., to London, with vegetable gardens.
But his work is more than simple eco-commentary. From his Los Angeles home (a vintage geodesic dome), Mr. Haeg has carved out an intriguing niche within modern architecture, performance art and eco-activism.
This is clear even with his new “Animal Estates,” as the Whitney installation is called. The beaver lodge, for one, will be stained black. “It’s going to look as if Marcel Breuer had designed a beaver lodge,” he said.
Mr. Haeg grew up northwest of Minneapolis, near St. John’s University, with its buildings that, like the Whitney, Breuer designed in the 1960s. St. John’s, a Roman Catholic university run by Benedictine monks, made an impact on the young Mr. Haeg, whose father graduated from the school. “The Abbey Church there is burned into my subconscious,” he said.
Today, even as Mr. Haeg is putting his beloved geodome on the market and deaccessioning unnecessary objects, there is one thing he is hanging onto. That is a teapot made in the late 1990s by Richard Bresnahan, who since 1980 has run the St. John’s pottery program, working only with local materials, from clays and glazes to wood for the kiln.
“It’s one of the only things I’m keeping,” he said. He bought the pot, a traditional Japanese double-gourd shape, a few years ago on a return visit with his father to the campus. “The first time I visited Bresnahan’s studio, I was blown away,” he said. “This is a part of the art world that’s really been marginalized: handcrafts and the stories of how things are made. I don’t think many artists think about where their materials come from.”
The teapot meshes not only with his ideals equating art’s ends and means, but with his retro ’60s aesthetic, a blend of pop-kitsch and eco-sincere. “It reminds me of my geodesic dome a bit, the way it’s this sphere up on three feet,” he said. “And the glaze — it’s very hippie, like it’s still forming itself. And there’s a nice conversation between the light, handmade cane handle and this big orb that’s solid and made of clay.”
And despite the exalted pedigree of the piece, he uses it all the time. “I drink a lot of tea,” he said.
Though Mr. Haeg calls himself a lapsed Catholic, the teapot reminds him of his admiration for the integrated way of life observed by the Benedictines at St. John’s: praying, teaching, farming, hiring high-modern architects.
“They really believe that everything matters,” he said. “There’s something so simple and primitive in the best possible way of what the life at St. John’s is and what the clay pot represents. It’s sort of a reminder that design isn’t just about physical acquisitiveness. It can be a means to a more fulfilled life.”
If it doesn’t make you embrace the Benedictine creed, it at least makes you think about switching to tea.
New York Times
Crown Point Press, a major force in the Bay Area art scene for 40 years, has produced prints with and for some of the greats including Richard Diebenkorn, John Cage, Richard Tuttle, Wayne Thiebaud and Pat Steir. In addition to a gallery and bookstore in its well appointed space on Hawthorne Street in San Francisco, CPP has a tremendous set of files, brochures and descriptive spec sheets on the artists who have worked with founder Kathan Brown and her team of Master printers.
I spent several hours rifling through the extensive resources and files during which I found a small monograph on Judy Pfaff, one of my favorite artists. It features an in depth interview with Pfaff by Constance Lewallen of CPP.
Here’s a memorable passage from that exchange:
CL: [Your] work is not ironic as so much of the work being shown today, in which the artist is the art critic as well…You once said to me that a positive way of looking at this phenomenon is that now artists have created another arena for themselves–they can be critics, they can be businessmen.
JP: When I am in a generous mood I think that. But often I think it is very depressing that the whole art world seems to demonstrate that attitude now–cool, detached, competent. I think one of the things about being an artist is that you should be allowed to test murky, unclear, unsure territory or all you have left are substitutes that signify these positions. Having it all together is the least interesting thing in art, in being alive.
CL: Someone once wrote that your work deals with art at the fringes of confusion of life itself.
JP: I like that.
Ever since it was first published in 1998, Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, edited by Bill Beckley with David Shapiro has been my primary text. This collection of essays brings together the thinking of artists and critics on the greatly misunderstood (and much maligned) topic of beauty.
Uncontrollable Beauty embodies many of the reasons why I began blogging in the first place. It speaks to what was not being paid attention to, written about, dialogued, analyzed or acknowledged in the contemporary world of art.
Here are some excerpts from that collection:
Agnes Martin: When I think of Art, I think of Beauty, Beauty is the mystery of Life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.
Peter Schjeldahl: ‘Beauty is Truth. Truth Beauty?’ That’s easy. Truth is a dead stop in thought before a proposition that seems to obviate further questioning, and the satisfaction it brings is beautiful.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: In the art world, the idea of the beautiful is always threatening to make an appearance or comeback but it tends always to be deferred.
Santayana: To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it.
Louise Bourgeois: Beauty? It seems to me that beauty is an example of what the philosophers call reification, to regard an abstraction as a thing. Beauty is a series of experiences. It is not a noun. People have experiences. If they feel an intense aesthetic pleasure, they take that experience and project it into the object. They experience the idea of beauty, but beauty in and of itself does not exist. Experiences are sorts of pleasure, that invoke verbs. In fact, beauty is only a mystified expression of our own emotion.
So I was particularly delighted to add a new volume to my favored bed stand stack–another articulate defense of art that is not just cerebral, conceptual, emotionally detached and non-retinal. Ellen Dissanayake, author of Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (which was first published in 1992!) approaches philosophical aesthetics from an unexpected point of view. She does not approach art as a scholar of visual language but as an ethologist and anthropologist. Her claim is that art is as intrinsic to human life as other observable behaviors like the proclivity to ritual, play, seeking sustenance. This tendency in us to “make special” is biological and as Dissanayake has termed it, “species-centric.” She spends several chapters of her book examining the anthropological parallels of art in other cultures, but it is her extraordinary skill at seeing through the vacuity of postmodernism in the visual arts that makes this book a terrific and reinforcing read for anyone interested in these issues.
Here is an excerpt from her preface that captures much of her basic argument:
While artists and art teachers might especially welcome a biological justification for the intrinsic importance of their vocation, everyone, particularly those who feel a loss or absence of beauty, form, meaning, value, and quality in modern life, should find this biological argument interesting and relevant. Ironically, today, words such as beauty and quality may be almost embarrassing to employ. They can sound empty or false, from their overuse in self-help and feel-good manuals, or tainted by association with now-repudiated aristocratic and elitist systems in which ordinary people were considered “common” for not having the opportunity to cultivate appreciation of these features. But the fact remains that even when we are told that “beauty” and “meaning” are socially constructed and relative terms insofar as they have been used by elites to exclude or belittle others, most of us still yearn for them. What the species-centered view contributes to our understanding of the matter is that knowledge that humans were evolved to require these things. Simply eliminating them creates a serious psychological deprivation. The fact that they are construed as relative does not make them unimportant or easily surrendered. Social systems that disdain or discount beauty, form, mystery, meaning, value and quality—whether in art or in life–are depriving their members of human requirements as fundamental as those for food, warmth, and shelter.