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What a treasure trove is Robert Ayers’ blog, A Sky filled with Shooting Stars. Earlier this week I posted a few extracts from Ayers’ recent interview with Larry Poons. Digging a bit deeper into Ayers’ archives, I have found fascinating interviews with several other significant artists. It is now clear to me that Ayers has a gift at pulling information out of artists that others just don’t know how to access.
Case in point is Ayers’ interview with Richard Tuttle. Conducted concomitant with Tuttle’s show, “Memory Comes from Dark Extension” at Sperone Westwater in 2007, the discussion touches on the exquisitely understated but dauntingly powerful pieces that embodied the sepulchral whiteness of SW. It was a show that knocked me out (and one that I wrote about here.) That exhibit was more intimate and personal than the brilliantly arms flung wide retrospective of Tuttle’s work that traveled the country in 2005/2006, and an extraordinary flowering of giftedness as a follow on to his controversial but now legendary first retrospective at the Whitney in 1975 which garnered this unforgettable condemnation from Hilton Kramer: “In Mr. Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less. It is, indeed, remorselessly and irredeemably less. It establishes new standards of lessness.”
Ever since that Whitney show in 1975, Tuttle has been on my *IGLEYD* artist list. So it is even more extraordinary to find how deftly Ayers can pull such rich material out of Tuttle.
Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
Ayers: Richard, this is a beautiful show. But your work is not concerned with beauty, is it?
Tuttle: Eastern philosophers talk about the illusion of the world. I feel very sympathetic to that, because you know in an instant if a person is involved with appearances or reality. There’s a whole huge structure out there that gives high marks for appearances. Then there are the people who are involved with what’s real. By far the vast majority of people’s lives are involved with appearances—even most art is just appearances. People are literally swept away by appearances.
Ayers: But you believe that you’re working with reality rather than appearance?
Tuttle: In our culture there is a job for art, because we can’t experience reality anywhere else. And the experience of reality is absolutely fundamental to human existence. My job is to give the best possible visual experience. I try to raise the bar on the visual experience so that people can enjoy their lives. I get to thinking a lot about motivation—the purest motivation should result in the best visual experience. This is the first show where I think I’ve really connected with this motivation. It takes a lifetime to achieve one’s work. Art is not an overnight career. You can’t face your own desperation until after a long time.
Ayers: How did you go about making this show?
Tuttle: A show is so mysterious. You can make a show with two pieces, or you can make a show with a thousand pieces. But this much I know—there has to be unity…In this show I reached a point where I saw very clearly that there’s breadth and there’s depth—those are the polarities that can be expanded in an artwork. For myself as a maker, I have to choose. Do I go broad or do I go deep?
You can read the entire interview here.
*IGLEYD: “I’m gonna love everything you do.” (pretty much)
Beckett’s Endgame is canonical modern theater, and the American Repertory Theatre has staged it for the second time during the many years I’ve been a subscriber. An earlier production in 1984 was directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, a co-founder with Lee Breuer et al of the legendary theatrical mavens, Mabou Mines, which, along with Robert Wilson, were the most important theatrical influences on my life in the 70’s in New York City.
Is Endgame too bleak for these times? Well, maybe. But it is also hauntingly exacting in its archetypal austerity. And for me personally, it is a default measuring device for how the force fields of my life have shifted. I first saw it performed in the 60s in San Francisco during a time when life as we knew it was being ripped open and replaced with an unleashed wild energy of change. That shift was intoxicating, exciting and personal, and Beckett was a clarion reminder of the profundity of the revolution at hand. Or so it seemed to a wide eyed, teenaged idealist.
Twenty years later in Cambridge, the center of gravity of my life had turned domestic, having just had three children in three years (and yes, we did finally figure out what was causing that.) At that point in my life, the existential angst of Endgame felt more theatrical than a desperate call from an inchoate world consciousness.
Now, 25 years after that viewing, I watched the play last night and felt as though I had circled back into a world where catastrophic change is rampant and ubiquitous, where the unknowns are winning out against the knowns. Bleak and intense, Endgame has proven itself to be a play for all seasons—certainly in my life anyway.
A few excellent quotes on Beckett are provided below thanks to the dramaturgy work of ART’s Heidi Nelson:
One has to give up the comfort or security of a single interpretation of Endgame, recognizing that the play does not work towards the clarification of meaning but, rather, towards the clarification of the impossibility of meaning.
Beckett’s unequivocal refusal to discuss his plays, clarify intentions or comment upon the meaning of his work must derivce from his own awareness that the significance of his dramas depends upon their exercise of indeterminacies, not from their representation of experience that can be translated into interpretations of human behavior. The radical simplicity of the environments he creates and the ambiguous nature of the time he imitates force his spectators to confront the very uncertainties that plague the minds of his characters.
—Charles R. Lyons
At the root of his art was a philosophy of the deepest yet most courageous pessimism, exploring man’s relationship with his God. With Beckett, one searched for hope amid despair and continued living with a kind of stoicism.
How happy am I
this brief kiss,
or can I say,
today I am a woman,
Rushing along the galaxy,
this string bag of easy puzzles.
To make matters worse,
A veil of wet snow,
a diffuse sun,
there are the planks of the porch,
there is the wooden rail,
there are the willow whips
like Desdemona’s hair,
or Lear’s blind tears
I keep thinking about Ruth Stone’s description of how a poem comes to her: She can hear it thundering towards her from across the landscape, and all she can do is run like hell to get a pencil to capture it before it barrels on past and finds another poet. And sometimes she catches it just in time, by its tail. When that happens, says Stone, the poem comes in, but every line is in reverse.
Ah the caprice of this venture, this making something out of thin air.
There’s a convergence happening. When I read about the state of the art market, the economy, social change, politics, the financial sector or just how to survive personally in this brave new world of 2009, the solutions are starting to have a common theme. What used to be compartmentalized and fragmented (bankers caring only about banking, political activists focused only on their particular cause) is now showing up as increasingly more inclusive and whole system-oriented.
For example, Rachel Sklar on The Daily Beast has written about a phrase first coined in 2004 but particularly well suited for today’s state of things. Smart Power–“a subtle combination of brains and the wisdom to use them to get things done”–is a concept that has more meaning than just political clout.
From her article:
Smart Power applies across the board to the new realities of 2009. To put it bluntly, the old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore—for anything. Every reality from a year ago seems hopelessly out of date—a thriving auto industry, actually owning a home, wanting to date an investment banker. Thriving and surviving in this brave and weird new world takes more than just the raw brute power of, say, money—Lehman Brothers learned how quickly that can go—or feeling smug over a print byline (especially if the article can’t be found online). How can Smart Power apply to those of us who don’t have to negotiate trade treaties or appease mad dictators? The Daily Beast asked Suzanne Nossel, the former Clinton-era deputy to UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who coined the phrase in a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs. Nossel, now the chief operating officer at Human Rights Watch, could see how the concept might apply beyond the foreign-policy world, recognizing that applying Smart Power required that special game-changing extra spark. “It’s not just about putting smart people in place—the Bush administration had many smart people, which didn’t always make for smart policies,” she said (cough, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, cough). “We should exercise our power in ways that are sustainable instead of draining.” So how does that apply to, say, media companies, or a junior senator? Simple—by being practical instead of ideological; by looking ahead and planning accordingly; by convincing others to support you. All of these things make for Smart Power, says Nossel: “Who uses tools hard and soft, who combines them in a supple way, who does it in a way that proves sustainable, who mobilizes others behind their ideas, who has a longer view.”
On the same site, Judith H. Dobrzynski addresses the change in tenor of the current art market. In writing about the 21st Annual Art Show in New York:
This year, things are different…“We need to get away from the notion of art as solely a commodity, and back to the language of art,” says Roland Augustine, of Luhring Augustine Gallery, “and the way to do that is to have a carefully curated and qualitative approach.”
In other words, dealers want to make art precious again—not just pricey. Galleries that look like museums help do that and, when Wall Street woes have scared off buyers anyway, why not? “They are taking this approach now because they understand that this long-term approach is the sure-fire way to go,” Augustine says. Instead of encouraging people who speculate in art, treating it like a stock, these shows aim to develop true collectors, who buy and hold for years.
Whether viewed from the macro level or from our small personal outposts, retrenching and “making do” sound passive and strangely old school. Is there a catchy phrase for the Obama era mindset yet? As inferred by the now infamous statement by economist Paul Romer, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”, these are watershed times.
A recent interview with the Zen koan-like and enigmatic artist Larry Poons can be read in its entirety on Robert Ayers’ excellent blog, A sky filled with Shooting Stars. Poons has a show of new work up in Chelsea, and it is quite a departure from earlier “dot” paintings.
Here is a sample of the quality of the exchange between Poons and Ayers:
Poons: Paintings are mistakes. You put a mark on a canvas, and it’s a mistake. Of course it’s a mistake, otherwise it would be wonderful, because it would be finished. But it’s not. After maybe 50 or 60,000 mistakes, you give up. Like Leonardo said, “Works of art aren’t finished, they’re abandoned.” That’s absolutely true, art is never finished. People say, “Oh, that’s a nice romantic thing to say.” But it’s not romantic. It’s like saying that physics can be finished. Real art is never finished. With applied art at least you can say, “OK. You’ve learnt this lesson.” Illustration doesn’t even get into this no-man’s land. But that’s the only place that art lives, if it’s any good.
Ayers: Can you explain that a little further?
Poons: It’s hard to explain. It’s the difference between William Butler Yeats and everybody else! You don’t know why, but holy mackerel, it’s there! You sense it. Very quickly you reach a wall of impenetrability. It’s like you’re reading words and there’s nothing there. You can’t penetrate it. And then you do – not all at once, but maybe in a week, or a year, or ten years, and when you do, when it finally pours over you, it’s just like anything else in art that you are really moved by. When stuff resonates with you, then you’ve got a Bach or a Schuman or a Brahms. You’ve got one of them.
Ayers: OK, but you’re referring to poetry and music. How does this work in painting?
Poons:When you’re painting, then you’ve got nothing to paint until there’s something there, that first mistake. But once you see something – you’ll see a flow or a shape – then that’s what you’re painting, and that’s where paintings come from. And you just try to make them real. And they’re real when they look like they’ve been done all at once. When something happens so that everything that I’ve been looking at in the painting becomes something else very different. All of a sudden little things are visible, things that were invisible before, and the painting doesn’t look like it has a beginning or an end. Where did Cézanne begin a painting? Where did Titian start? You can’t tell. You just don’t see it. But in paintings that don’t arrive at this “colored moment,” you can always tell.
Ayers: Yes. But if art is never finished, how can we tell whether it’s any good or not?
Poons:The art that we’re talking about is never finished. It can’t be. It isn’t in its nature. When things are finished isn’t a willful thing. Is a Mondrian finished? No. But is a [Fritz] Glarner? Yeah. That’s why a Mondrian’s better. And Mondrian or Glarner, they have no control over this. Beethoven had no control over being that good. Impossible. It wasn’t his fault he was that good. And it wasn’t Pollock’s fault that he was that wonderful. So if somebody says, “Oh, that’s good!” you can’t get a swelled head because you know that if perchance it is any good, that’s almost the way it is – it’s by chance!
I read this exchange and knew immediately what Poons was talking about. Perhaps I’m too gun shy at the idea of speaking so frankly about a process that is a bit like describing the experience of hallucinogenics to someone who hasn’t ever imbibed. Poons talks so nakedly about the inner conversations that go on, most of them with entities that are part of you and yet not part of not you. It’s a mystery, the whole thing, and I’ve been less inclined to try to embody it as openly as he does here.
So of course this delighted me.
I’d love to see the show. It is at the Danese Gallery in New York and runs through March 14.
Thanks to Riki Moss for sending this link to me. Great find, Riki.
When I think of how you move—
when you enter a room, how the room
enters you; when you step out
into the night, how the night sky
falls into your hair—
when I think of how you stand
as if with nothing in your hands
and I have nothing to offer you now
save my own wild emptiness—
when I think of how you leave
the air untouched and how you came
into the world my grief had wrecked
and made it shine again by simply
walking slowly through the dark
toward me—love, I think
the body is a miracle, that animal
whose graceful shadow
lies between us, calmed.
This poem came to me by way of my all time best poetry trailblazer, Lisa. It was published in an issue of Faultlines, UC Irvine’s journal of arts and literature when Lisa was editor-in-chief in 2005.
Everything about this poem speaks to its title. Reading these lines outloud is running your hand on velvet, or watching the slow pour of warm caramel into a spreading pool in a dish. And given that my favorite grace giver is out of town, it fits snugly in the hollow of his empty pillow.
If this topic is worn thin for you, then pass by this posting. I continue to be heartened by the dialogue that has resulted from the arts funding discussion that was launched into the larger public consciousness during the Stimulus Bill process. I am heartened because I agree, with Greg Sandow (whose article in the Wall Street Journal I posted here a few days ago) that we need to do a better job at articulating the value and importance of this nebulous, oft misunderstood, easily undervalued and/or deaccessioned (as exemplified by Brandeis University’s now notorious decision to close the Rose Art Museum) thing called THE ARTS.
Here’s Sandow’s recent posting from his excellent blog, Sandow:
In my last post, about going viral, I mentioned a skeptical Wall Street Journal piece I’d written about stimulus money for the arts. It appeared last Wednesday, and of course grew out of my skeptical posts about the arts stimulus (here and here).
In it, I said much of what you might have read in the blog. The economic argument for giving stimulus money to the arts is shallow, and easy for non-arts organizations to trump. It’s hard to argue for money for the arts when money for crucial social programs — public health, for instance — is lacking. It’s hard, politically, to give stimulus money for arts organizations like the Metropolitan Opera, which seem to be swimming in money. (Even if they’re hurting financially.)
And then I ended with something about the pro-arts arguments I wish we’d make, which would be based on the intrinsic value of the arts (or better still, of art itself). And which — this is the hard part for many of us — would reflect a world in which popular culture already supplies some of the depth and meaning we credit (and often so ecstatically) the formal high arts for giving us.
Which brings me to a book I strongly recommend, and the challenge it gives us. The book is Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing, by Robert Coles. Coles is a child psychiatrist, a Pulitzer Prize winner for a book called Children in Crisis, and for more than a generation one of the most humane voices in American writing. A very serious person, both in his own field, and nationally.
His Springsteen book is about why everyday Americans have loved Springsteen, and been educated and inspired by him. Encouraged by him. Taught about themselves by him. Caught in conversations — in their minds, but no less real for that — with him. With references to Walker Percy, a novelist who was moved by Springsteen, and by William Carlos Williams, the great poet, whom Coles knew, and who in the ’50s, living in New Jersey, felt how important, in that age, Frank Sinatra was. And who noted even then, prompted by his son, that Sinatra would have been even stronger if he’d been singing his own songs, his own thoughts, his own words, as Springsteen does.
This book does what arts advocates should do. We talk about the meaning of the arts, their depth, their transformative power. But most often I think we talk windily, in great generalities, without saying much about specific instances, specific things that we or others get from any work of art.
Coles does all that. Here’s book, more than 200 pages long, that tells how Springsteen brought depth, meaning, and transformation to many, many people. With the people talking about it in their own words.
That demonstrates, first of all, what I mean when I say that we in the arts have to acknowledge the artistic strength of popular culture. Whatever we think the arts do, popular culture does, too. (No, not all of it. But that’s an old debate, one most strongly carried on within popular culture itself.)
So we need to do for the arts what Coles does for Springsteen. Until we do, our advocacy, if you ask me, rings a little hollow. So let’s get to work. What depth, what meaning, what transformative urgency, did a production of Tosca at your local opera company have, in the words of people who attended it?
(And yes, I’m deliberately provocative by choosing that example. The question I’d love to provoke is: Do we really believe that everything that bears the label “art” has more artistic value than the best of popular culture? And if we do, can we demonstrate how this is true?)
The Niagara River
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
As it moves along,
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.
There’s a subcontinent of dread beneath these words, a tectonic shearing away of what’s up and what’s down. This is an unforgettable and terrifying poem.
Just hours after I found this poem, Sunday morning’s email from A had a hauntingly correlative paragraph:
The singularity is near. Futurist Kurzweil in his book of that name describes a singularity as the point beyond the knee of an exponential curve, where progress accelerates from manageable to runaway change. He argues that by mid-century the advance of technology will be so explosively steep as to seem vertical or infinite, fundamentally altering consciousness. A tear in the fabric of history, he describes it. In Kurzweil’s eschatology, the entire cosmos will suffuse with an immense knowledge and intelligence that originated in biological process on earth, infinitely leveraged by intelligent machines and reaching outward at the speed of light. I too feel the signs of the times, though with less optimistic outcomes. But whether it is from paradise or cataclysm, there is no turning back. In my personal rowboat just up river from some Niagara’s spectacular fall off, I vainly imagine I am skirting the event horizon of the water’s immense tug, the point beyond which no oarsmanship can reverse course. The repeated addictions and compulsions, the pervasive dread in my soul, are mere preliminaries to the final sweep over the edge. The true singularity is death.
Maybe we all need an allowance for a bit of misery spewing. I hope this is my one and only ration of foreboding for the week.
Elatia Harris, commenter extraordinaire, left this as a response to a comment left to the post below. Thank you Elatia for your reliably insightful and sense-making point of view.
Re: Arts funding:
Much depends on whether you think art follows consumer taste or leads it. And on whether you would be happy for art to reflect culture rather than to stimulate it.
You have to consider how much poorer your life would be if an artist were not different from an entertainer. Maybe not poorer at all, if entertainment is the objective. If what you’re seeking is to beguile your hours, get a change of scene and a sense of relaxation, that’s no bad thing. The government funds the gratification of that aim if you can accomplish these things by going for a day in the park, and you fund it if you buy a ticket to the concert of a commercially successful band. (To say a band is commercially successful is not to slight it, only to emphasize that it’s available on the basis of a ticket, as artistically successful bands for which there is less consumer demand are not.)
If what you want is to immerse in a different reality that might or might not be gentle and fun, however, and to confront rather than escape yourself, taking away food for thought for many days or years — all of this in the company of strangers who are doing more or less the same — then you might want art, perhaps without knowing it. My view is that people want art without knowing it all the time, because we seek transformational as well as restorative experiences, and long to be knocked for a loop. This takes vision, however, and while everyone is responsive to vision not everyone has it.
Some artists do have it. Does this mean they function for the public good? If the answer is yes, then you posit one difference between a consumer, who funds her private idea of a good time, and a taxpayer, who needs to be concerned with the public good even when she doesn’t personally respond to certain artists. Art can reset the human imagination, temporarily turning a consumer into a person who strives and is illuminated. Entertainment can’t risk that, although it occasionally accomplishes it anyway.
You have no right to be entertained at the public expense — as we have seen, that results only in pitting lions against Christians, or perhaps in the creation of “The Yellow River Concerto.” But you have a right to art as you have a right to health care. It should be yours for the price of citizenship, yours like a day in the park.
The politics of art. That isn’t my field, and yet it is. I listened to the back and forth about arts funding during the Stimulus Bill discussions with mixed emotions. Sometimes the arguments rang true, sometimes they didn’t.
The fact is that OF COURSE we need to fund and support the arts. Those who think otherwise are living in a state of disconnectedness. But for me the operative question is how do you do it? What does “supporting the arts” really mean? Whether your nut is $50 million or $500 million, how do you decide where best to invest? And in this difficult economic environment, what would be the most stimulative approach? And how do you deal with that nasty problem of elitism, perceived and/or real?
Greg Sandow, an arts writer I follow, wrote the following for the Wall Street Journal. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his claims, but I found his point of view provocative and worthwhile. See what you think.
People in the arts had a triumph.
They got culture money into the stimulus bill — but not without a fight. The House, in its version of the bill, gave $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, increasing its budget by more than the third. Then the Senate took that out. Arts advocates mobilized, made phone calls, asked supporters to make some noise. And lo! The final version of the bill restored the funds.
Arts advocates, from Robert Redford to the president of New York’s Lincoln Center, are celebrating now. But I wonder, in a still, small voice, if this is really such a victory.
For one thing, in the larger scope of things, it’s not much money. Fifty million dollars, in a hastily assembled $800 billion stimulus, is just a bubble on a wave. It’s a rounding error, a random fluctuation. It doesn’t mean that arts support runs deep and strong. The battle for the arts has been going on for decades, and in my view — as a person in the arts myself — the arguments we make aren’t nearly strong enough
Take the economic argument. That took center stage in the Battle for the Stimulus. The arts, we like to say, create jobs and bolster the economy. That’s prominently argued on the Web site of Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group. The nonprofit arts, the site insists, generate $166 billion in economic activity each year, and offer the equivalent of full-time employment to 5.7 million souls.
But does this mean — as Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D., N.Y.) told the New York Times, after victory was won — that “if we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art”? Well, hardly. Let’s not get carried away. Not even Americans for the Arts suggests such a thing.
And unless you go all the way with Rep. Slaughter, the economic argument for arts support has a hole in it. Other things have economic impact, too. Why choose the arts? All of Michigan is suffering because the auto industry collapsed.
Arts advocates also love to say that arts generate indirect spending and employment. In that same Times article, Kate D. Levin, cultural affairs commissioner of New York City, said that “even the smallest organization can record the fact that the parking lot down the street and the dry cleaner around the corner and the restaurant nearby all do better when the organization is functioning.” But that’s true of any business. In New York, it’s virulently true for Wall Street, whose sickness hurts all sorts of New York enterprises, from real estate to small businesses in the financial district. (Even culture!) This, in fact, became an argument in favor of those hated Wall Street bonuses. Without them, New York’s economy is reeling.
But then the choices that our nation has to make go even further. The San Francisco city government is facing a $576 million budget deficit. Cuts have been proposed, some involving public health. For hours at a meeting of the city’s Board of Supervisors, there were protests from advocates for homeless people, medical clinics that serve the poor, and many other worthy groups.
So somebody proposed an alternative — cut funding for the symphony and ballet. The matter hasn’t been resolved, but would you like to be the opera representative, arguing to keep your funds, with people from endangered clinics in the room?
And what if those clinic workers and others like them say the arts have a lot of money, and that they largely serve an upscale audience? Arts advocates hate that kind of talk. It’s not correct, they say. It’s anti-arts, anti-intellectual.
But let’s not underestimate how persistent those perceptions are, especially when reality at least partly seems to back them up. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera sells some of its tickets for as much as $375 each and has board members who make million-dollar gifts (or, in one case, a $25 million gift — an overflowing cornucopia). In 2006, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the New York Philharmonic paid $2.8 million to its music director and $864,000 to its CEO.
The Met, of course, has huge expenses, as does the Philharmonic. Both can say they’re paying what the market charges for the talent that they need. And the Met, on top of that, is in financial trouble. But will everyday Americans jump up and down for joy if the Met gets extra funds while public health is cut?
The arts are going to need a better strategy. And in the end it’s going to have to come from art itself, from the benefits art brings, in a world where popular culture — which has gotten smart and serious — also helps bring depth and meaning to our lives.
That’s the kicker: the popular culture part. Once we figure that out, we can leave our shaky arguments behind and really try to prove we matter.