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A scanning electron microscope image of a nerve ending. It has been broken open to reveal vesicles (orange and blue) containing chemicals used to pass messages in the nervous system. (Photo: Tina Carvalho)
Sally Reed, friend and artist, left the following quote from Anne Truitt’s Daybook as a comment to the posting below. It is such a powerful concept I couldn’t leave it buried:
The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own intimate sensitivity.
That wise and sober counsel is coupled with another sentence that stopped me in my tracks. This came to me by way of Lisa who is friend, poet and fellow traveler into the deeper folds of Elizabeth Bishop’s life and work. Bishop’s biographer Brett C. Millier (Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It) identifies what he considers “may have been the most important single piece of criticism Elizabeth ever received” when Marianne Moore questioned her young protégé about the aesthetic problem of “depth”:
I can’t help wishing you would sometime in some way, risk some unprotected profundity of experience.
One interpretation of this advice is contextual: In the 1930s, Moore was advocating that Bishop turn to the moral and metaphysical Christian critique that was being explored by the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. That wasn’t the path that Bishop ended up taking for a number of reasons. But the admonishment as it stands has a powerful call to action. Moore’s phrase, “risk some unprotected profundity of experience” is enough to fill the rest of my day with its implications.
Thanks Sally and Lisa.
I have been a fan of sculptor Anne Truitt’s writing since I read her book Daybook many years ago. First published in 1982, Daybook is Truitt’s personal journal while working at Yaddo, and her insights into the squirrely nature of the creative process spoke to me. Her style is nonlinear and yet insightful, personal and yet not too. When the book came out all those many years ago, there weren’t a lot of witnessings available of how women artists were navigating that behind-the-scenes art making life. There are lots of them now.
Truitt went on to write a few other similarly styled books, like Turn and Prospect. But none had as powerful an impact on me as that initial exposure so many years ago.
Her sculpture was harder for me to connect with. A Truitt was always easy to spot because almost every piece in a public collection is a slender wooden column painted with care and artfulness. Most collections have one. I liked her essential idea—a minimalist, Supremacist project that combines 3D and a feathery fine-tuned sense of color—but my “in the flesh” experience of the work just never held me in awe.
But that all changed when I visited Truitt’s retrospective, “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. This is her first major show since the 1970s and includes both paintings and sculpture from her 50 year career. (Truitt died in 2004.) In the literature that accompanies the show (curated by Kristen Hileman), the column sculptures are referred to as Truitt’s “profoundly focused practice. Acting as a painter as well as a sculptor, the artist wrapped color around the corners of these sculptures, creating visually poetic relationships between structure and surface. Throughout her work, she investigated proportion, scale and color, as well as perception and memory.” Profoundly focused practice is a perfect phrase. The work has a meditative, disciplined, higher state of mind quality to it.
This is work that needs to be seen with its full gaggle of siblings. Placeholder pieces, token Truitts, cannot do the job. This is not one-up work. It is a body of art that demands your complete and undivided attention. You need to be able to lift out of the gallery, out of the museum, out of this terrestrially bound existence so that you can levitate in and around these silent, slender plinths, listening for the hum of their ethereal subtlety.
Truitt was a color ecstacist, a superlative neologism that goes beyond the everyday concept of being an ecstatic. At one point she says that the columnar format dominated her efforts to “set color free in three dimensions for its own sake,” a pursuit she saw as “analogous to my feelings for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if in some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.” That’s the language of spiritual ecstasy, of finding oneness with god. Which in Truitt’s case is the Polychroma itself.
In a video that accompanies the show, Truitt talks about her process of choosing colors. It is like listening to someone channeling in an altered state. I sat and listened to her rapture with a sense of awe and amazement. If you go, take the time to sit and hear what she is saying.
Talking about her extremely minimalist painting series called Arundel, Truitt had this to say:
In these paintings I set forth, to see for myself how they appear, what might be called the tips of my conceptual icebergs in that I put down so little of all that they refer to. I try in them to show forth the forces I feel to be a reality behind, and more interesting than, phenomena.
The reality behind and more interesting than phenomena. That nails it.
I’ve been in a silent streak these last few days. Is it because the fall is so exceptionally beautiful this year that I am feeling even more speechless than usual? Perhaps. But also I think it is because I’m deep in a dig. This time it is a new curiosity about shadow. You know, that incorrigibly vague term that can mean anything from our darker impulses to that which we cannot see or accept. What I’m looking for is vague but it has something to do with art making, creativity, sourcing, the interior archaeology. That’s about all I know so far.
Robert Bly’s slight volume, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, is a brisk short walk with Bly’s poetic sense on the topic. As is my usual response to Bly, there are times when his take on a thing grabs hold of me with its authenticity and won’t let go, and other times when his flailing just floats out of earshot. The chapter on Wallace Stevens has attached itself to me for several days. He has strong opinions about how my favorite (and extremely complex) poet navigated (or failed to navigate) the shadow in mining his poetic gifts. I’m still sorting through what I’ll keep and what I’ll give away on that subject. But here’s a passage that has resonated with me since I read it:
William James warned his students that a certain kind of mind-set was approaching the West—it could hardly be called a way of thought—in which no physical details are noticed. Fingernails are not noticed, trees in the plural are mentioned, but no particular tree is ever loved, nor where it stands; the air in the ear it not noticed…Since the immense range of color belongs to physical detail—the thatness—of the universe, it is the inability to see color. People with this mind-set have minds that resemble white nightgowns. For people with this mind-set, there’s not much difference between 3 and 742; the count of something is a detail. In fact the number they are most interested in, as James noted, is one. That’s a number without physical detail.
Bly turns to Steven’s poem, “Metaphors of a Magnifico” as a way of freeing one’s self from this mind set and avoid being “murdered” by it:
Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.
Trees. Tree. Leaves. Leaf. All. Nothing. Everything.
If you live in the Boston area, DO NOT miss this: Sleep No More, at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline. It runs through January 3.
And if you have a nature that is excessive and appetitive like mine, you might need to go twice. (I’ve already purchased another block of tickets to go with a gang of friends and my children.)
There are lots of reviews of this installation theater production, links to which I have included at the bottom of the post. But let me just share the essentials: The production is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth and is the work of Punchdrunk, an enigmatic theatrical troupe from the UK. This is their first foray into U.S. territory and they are here in Boston by way of Diane Paulus, artistic director of A.R.T. Paulus saw Punchdrunk in action when she was in London a few years ago. After that initial exposure to their work, Paulus said she could not view any subsequent theatrical event without the overlay of that experience.
Paulus is a seasoned theater pro, but her comment made me think about “never the same” theatrical milestones in my life as an audience participant. Living in New York City in the 70s and beyond, I was altered permanently by a number of theatrical experimentalists:
Robert Wilson. The 12 hour production in Brooklyn of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. A Letter for Queen Victoria. And then most memorably, Einstein on the Beach in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera.
Lee Breuer and Mabou Mines. The Beckett projects and the Shaggy Dog Animations, productions that explored how symbols become characters. And then the unforgettable Gospel at Colonus.
Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Where do I start? His performances were almost impossible to describe but I returned again and again.
Andrei Serban at La MaMa. The Fragments of a Trilogy (composed of three plays: The Trojan Women, Medea, and Elektra ) where the audience becomes the Greek chorus and the proscenium-centric format is annihilated. Greek tragedy is us.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Esoteric Mormonism was laced throughout the story line, so watching the two plays was like stepping into a highly personalized archaeological dig of my tribal past. Most of those references fell outside the expertise of reviewers, but it was clear Kushner had done some deep research into the psyche of this very American religious tradition.
Tom Stoppard. Anything by Sir Tom, but most unforgettably, The Coast of Utopia 12 hour marathon at Lincoln Center in 2007. At the end of the three play performance, I just wanted to do it all over again.
Should Punchdrunk and Sleep No More be added to that list? I want to go again before I make that call. Does the magic wear off with over exposure? (Does anything survive that most difficult of tests?) Will those haunting rooms feel as imbued with magic as they did last week?
Some of these concerns are captured in a review of the production by Frank Rizzo in Variety:
Shakespeare is not so much spoken as gleaned, and if something is lost in the translation, something else is gained in the experience. This, after all, is not “Macbeth” — it’s a very different theatrical animal with its own agenda, not the least of which is to attract adventuresome audiences in search of what’s new and hip. The production abandons text, poetry and linear structure to create a more engaged audience dynamic. But one can also ask what does that experience add up to: a richly imagined reality or just a fleeting dream?
Whether this type of production becomes more than a novelty will depend on one’s nature, sensibility and endurance. Certainly, those without a fundamental understanding of “Macbeth” — and even those who know the play well — might be lost in the maze (in several rooms that possibility is literally true). For the enthusiastic crowd the show attracted in college-crammed Beantown, it is drama as digression, theater as the latest app, and Shakespeare presented in visual tweets.
Will the next production be as gripping or will it just become the old same-new, with better bar selections? (There’s a lounge in the center of the building where a jazz singer and combo perform for those who need a break, or a good stiff drink.)
As for its possible future in the U.S. after A.R.T., the production would be a staggering challenge logistically and financially to duplicate — load-in time alone was said to be months — and would need a market of young auds to support the endeavor. But in the right environment, it could be just the thing to reinvent and enliven a theater community.
Whatever one’s aesthetics, just be sure to bring comfortable shoes. As the old joke about the aging hooker goes, “It’s not the work but the stairs.”
Reviews of Sleep No More and Punchdrunk:
Sunday night I went to hear a lecture at Lesley University by Thomas Moore (author of Care of the Soul) and Richard Tarnas (Passion of the Western Mind) on the topic, “Soul and Cosmos: A New Way of Imagining Life in the 21st Century.”
I have heard Moore speak before (he is, after all, something of a local luminary) but it was my first encounter hearing Tarnas speak. I hope it isn’t my last. He is thoughtful and articulate which is even more impressive when it happens in the domain of that hard to describe, edgy, thin ice world that goes by a number of different names—metaphysics, New Age, cosmic consciousness, soul-centered theology, neo-paganism, mysticism, among others.
Every once in a while you come across a person who has been extremely well educated in the rational traditions, usually sporting a PhD in a serious field. And then something happens. Their world cracks open.
I have come to call this “scientists gone galactic”. David Bohm. Ken Wilbur. Rupert Sheldrake. Stanislav Grof. Richard Tarnas is another one to add to the list.
Sunday night was a steady stream of idea kernels, and I hope to write about many of those in the future. Here is a small one as a start.
Tarnas referenced research that demonstrated how a small consortium of like-minded people can shift the overall cultural patterns much more readily when systems are in a state of chaos and upheaval. The discontinuity is actually an advantage for leveraging a change in thinking.
In other words, small groups can have a much larger impact than might have been supposed. This is an idea that can’t help but make you feel more hopeful. There are possibilities here.
And today I found an example that is a case in point. Bruce Weber wrote a piece for the New York Times about the extremely supportive and convivial literary scene in San Francisco. This is far afield from the competitive posturing that is typically found in New York and London. And even though the number of well known writers is small by comparison, San Francisco appears to be creating a literary community that does thing differently. Writers mentioned in the piece include Amy Tan; Po Bronson, Ethan Watters and Ethan Canin (founders of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto); Dave Eggers (creator of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern); Stephen Elliott. Weber also pointed to the positive influence of programs like Stanford University’s prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowships.
From Weber’s article:
The city’s writers — and, notably, its readers — celebrated the 10th anniversary of the book lovers’ festival known as Litquake with dozens of readings, panel discussions and other events (including the braising of Ms. Tan). It all culminated in Saturday’s edition of Lit Crawl, the annually overcrowded word-and-drink fest in city bars.
It was, over all, a pep rally, an emblem really of the school spirit that San Francisco literary life has established in the last decade or so. And though the city has a venerable history in letters, the community of writers has never been as, well, communitylike as it is today. Like the thriving theater culture in Chicago, which coalesced around a few key companies and created an important center for the art form without becoming a rival to New York City as a center for theater commerce, so San Francisco’s writers have come to recognize and trumpet the idea that this city prizes their craft, its solitary difficulty and what can emerge from it, even though there isn’t much of a publishing industry here.
That boy was hungry. His mother gave him Dog Salmon,
Only the head. It was enough,
And he carried it hungry to the river’s mouth
And fell down hungry. Saltwater came from his eyes,
And he turned over and over. He turned into it.
And that boy was swimming under the water
With his round eyes open. He could not close them.
He was breathing the river through his mouth.
The river’s mouth was in his mouth. He saw stones
Shimmering under him. Now he was Salmon Boy.
He saw the Salmon People waiting. The said, “This water
Is our wind. We are tired of swimming against the wind.
Come to the deep, calm valley of the sea.
We are hungry too. We must find the Herring People.”
And they turned their green tails. Salmon Boy followed.
He saw Shell-Walking-Backward, Woman-Who-Is-Half-Stone.
He heard the long, high howling of Wolf Whale,
Seal Woman’s laughter, the whistling of Sea Snake,
Saw Loon Mother flying through branches of seaweed,
Felt Changer turn over far down in his sleep.
He followed to the edge of the sky where it opens
And closes, where Moon opens and closes forever,
And the Herring People brought feasts of eggs,
As many as stars, and Salmon Boy ate the stars
As if he flew among them, saying Hungry, Hungry.
But the Post of Heaven shook, and the rain fell
Like pieces of Moon, and the Salmon People swam,
Tasting sweet, saltless wind under the water,
Opening their mouths again to the river’s mouth,
And Salmon Boy followed, full-bellied, not afraid.
He swam fastest of all. He leaped into the air
And smacked his blue-green silvery side, crying, Eyo!
I jump! again and again. Oh, he was Salmon Boy!
He could breathe everything! He could see everything!
He could eat everything! And then his father speared him.
He lay on the riverbank with his eyes open,
Saying nothing while his father emptied his belly.
He said nothing when his mother opened him wide
To dry in the sun. He was full of sun.
All day he dried on sticks, staring upriver.
It is a rainy day and a Sunday, which seems like a very suitable juncture for spending some time with a poem I have held in awe for many years. Whenever my friend Kathryn and I get to talking about the experiences in our lives that have “gutted” us out, this is the poem we are referencing in our heads.
Salmon Boy is my personal paragon for a very particular kind of energy. I’ve never found another poem that does what this one does. Everything in its musical structure, choice of language and idea flow is incantatory. And each time I get to the end—a process I have gone through countless times— I feel the peculiar sensation of having witnessed (and at times, even participated in) a mystical rite. Oh that all the guttings that life brings could be experienced in a container as crystalline and exquisite as this.
If you take the cubist idea and really press it…what you have is what I was now being forced to deal with…In other words, the marriage of figure and ground—which is how they always term the cubist achievement—of necessity leads to the marriage between painting and environment; essentially they are the same thing, just taking it one step further. When I married the painting to the environment, suddenly it had to deal with the environment around it as being equal to the figure and having as much meaning.
Night 2 with Robert Irwin wasn’t quite as scintillating and rapid-fire as Night 1 (see the posting below for that report), but it was still well worth the crisp evening walk to the MFA. In this second session I got a better sense of what in his material is the essential boiler plate (not meant to be dismissive but more in line with its original meaning of reusable text rendered in a durable form) and elemental to his argument. Hearing him run through his constellated world view again definitely took me deeper into his way of seeing things. And amazingly, his energy never flags. His passion for this material is palpable, like heat from a high tuned burner.
Night 2’s lecture, The Hidden Structure of the Art World, delivered less on that title’s lofty promise than on the next revelatory layer of the Irwin Cosmology. The quote at the begnning of this post is a fairly succinct description of Irwin’s artistic journey, and the search for that path is at the core of his presentation both nights. But to that end he also suggested a number of side trips worthy of exploration—Edmund Hesserl’s phenomenology, the figure/ground debate, deep space, determined relations vs particular form, the parity of intellect and feeling, the economics of identity, the devolution of hierarchy. Much of this can be had by reading his book, Seeing is Forgetting The Name of the Thing One Sees, but hearing him string these disparate ideas together, in real time, into a living, breathing, rhizomatic, all-at-once, everything is important structure is its own pleasure.
Walking home I felt a renewed connection to my earliest art making self—the extraordinary mystery that is sheer consciousness; the deliciousness of unbridled curiosity; the enchantment of seeing, hearing and tasting the world every waking moment; the often overlooked power of intuition, instinct and feeling; the challenge to be alert to what it is that moves us in this world and then to find the focus and discipline to translate that into a form that others can understand and relate to. It is a process that has often left me utterly speechless and intoxicated with the uncomplicated joy of it all. (At one point last night Irwin said, “For me, the crux of being an artist is to take something I know and make it comprehensible.”)
This passage from Piet Mondrian’s Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art (1937) captures some of the Irwinian view:
In spite of world disorder, intuition and instinct are carrying humanity to a real equilibrium…Intuition becomes more and more conscious and instinct more and more purified…The culture of particular form gives way to determined relations.
That last line is an extraordinary one—the “culture of particular form” giving way to “determined relations.” And so much in keeping with Irwin’s point of view.
And to whom I give the last shot:
My art has never been about ideas…My pieces were never meant to be dealt with intellectually as ideas, but to be considered experientially.
Robert Irwin is doing a two-night gig at the MFA in Boston. Last night was the first installment of Irwin’s rapid-fire, wisdom-spewing, wait, wait, I can’t write all of this down fast enough, boundary-breaking delivery. With his baseball cap firmly on his head (which, he advised us coyly, was to protect his eyes from direct light while acknowledging the irony of being an artist with eye problems) and donning west coast casual jeans and sneakers, he looks as unpretentious and unprepossessing as his presentation proved to be.
Where he took that sold out auditorium is hard to describe. I’ve shared quotes from his timeless (and freshly updated and reissued) book, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, on this blog many times. But to capture the essence of what he has come to represent for me is very hard to codify in simple language with clear directives. Irwin is after all the author of a book that Michael Govan of the New York Times believes “convinced more young people to become artists than the Velvet Underground has created rockers.”
Edward Saywell, curator for contemporary art at the MFA, gave a beautifully crafted introduction. His admiration for Irwin seemed so genuine, and he referenced how Irwin “coalesced and dissolved” many of the art categories in the second half of the 20th century. Saywell’s description of an Irwin installation at the Dia Center in Chelsea from several years ago (one that I also saw and loved) was very moving and personal, referring to the sublimity of the “arresting haze of light” that the scrims dividing up the space created. His response was not the expected intellectual, post-modernist take down of the work but a reaction full of feeling and personal connection.
Once on stage, Irwin let it loose immediately. His delivery has the energy of a very young person with a jam-packed mind operating at the speed of light. Going against his legendary refusal to allow his work to be photographed (he insists that it has to be experienced in the flesh and that there is no replacement for that real life experience), he graciously gave in to the program director’s plea to please please please include slides. And even though I know why he feels the way he does, I admire his willingness to compromise and not demand everything to be on his own self-defined, purist terms. I know this may sound like a gross generalization, but Irwin is probably one of the few Big Time artists who is not a flaming narcissist.
The lecture was titled On the Nature of Abstraction. “It’s a general title I use for most of my talks because I like it,” he said without guile. Starting with the most basic discussion of what abstraction has come to mean and its implicit duality—the tension of the thing itself and its “abstracted” version—Irwin just took off. In discussing the radical nature of the history of art in the 19th century, Irwin started with the famous David painting from 1807, “The Coronation of Napoleon”, and ended the century with Malevich’s white on white experiments. While some decried the (d)evolution from the exquisitely rendered representationalism of David to the non-imaged, conceptual nature of Malevich’s work as a travesty. One critic claimed that Malevich left us with a visual desert, to which Irwin countered that it is a desert of feeling. “What Malevich and his cohorts did was give feeling equal status with the intellectual.”
Irwin’s journey began as a painter of abstracted images. In his own telling of his story, he just kept removing more and more of what was in the way of a pure experience of art. He gave up the visual imagery, then the frame and thingness of the artifact itself, then the often implicit framing of the museum altogether. Who else could take the journey through such a deep and subtle process and then later find himself designing the gardens at the Getty Museum as well as serving as the architect of the renovated building for the Dia Beacon?
This relentless search for what is at the essence of the visual experience is so primal and elemental, and that is part of why I find it hard to describe in words. The best analogy I have experienced recently is a fascinating essay about David Mamet and William Macy’s approach to theater. Written by Mimi Kramer-Bryk, former theater critic for the New Yorker, The Conversational Reality (on Mimi’s blog Smoke & Mirrors) describes another search to get to the essence. Whether it is for theater or visual art, the effort requires a kind of discipline, focus and commitment that is daunting. Chasing after that which is subtle and often furtive is not a trivial undertaking, but the yields are profound in both cases.
Tonight’s lecture is titled The Hidden Structure of the Art World. I’m ready for another ride into hyperspace.
A Message from the Wanderer
Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.
Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occured to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.
Inside, I dreamed of constellations—
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.
Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as—often, in light, on the open hills—
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then—even before you see—
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.
That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.
Now—these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.
There will be that form in the grass.
–William E. Stafford
This poem speaks to an exquisite kind of redemptive hope, one that is akin to the feelings I am carrying after a weekend spent with friends who have been with me for most of my adult life. Stafford’s image of a form in the grass is such a redolent metaphor for that moment “when all we have said and all we have hoped will be all right.” Blessed be that day.
Oh, and be sure to just remember your name.
We’re off for a few days in Vermont and Western Massachusetts with our Jack’s Place gang of friends. Jack’s Place is a house in the western corner of Vermont that a group of us are building together. At the helm of this project, emotionally and architecturally, is my favorite pied piper and visionary friend, Gerald Horne. He was gifted with the land and a rudimentary suggestion of a house foundation by Jack, a classmate from his days of studying architecture in New York City. In turn Gerald gifted all of us by making it a collective project.
So for the next few days we will be feasting on leaves of every tone, autumn angled light, crisp early morning air, and the warm companionship of old and good friends.
My parting thoughts as we set sail for the mountains are from Whiskey River’s commonplace book. The following three quotes should be read once a day for a lifetime.
Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them – never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?
–C. S. Lewis
Let us not forget that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience; all else is remote inference.
–Sir Arthur Eddington
Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientists do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way peace and security which he can not find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.