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Trees along the Charles River, Boston

Ah, the color red. For several weeks that hue has been a touchstone for the unspoken for me, an indicator of another realm.

It started with the trees. What a fall this has been in New England, with the color coming on with an orchestrated polyphony. The red leafed trees have been particularly spectacular. Every weekend since late September, we have been tracking the slow shift in color of each red leafed tree along the bike path on the Charles River, a route that runs from the Science Museum near downtown Boston to just a few miles from Route 128 in Waltham.

Our passion begged a question: As beautiful as the reds are, why are there significantly more yellows and golds?

Turns out the reason is ancient and antediluvian: Insects like yellow leaves better. And while red leafed trees are less prevalent than the golds and yellows in North America, the ratio is even smaller in Europe.

According to Zahra Hirji in Earth Magazine:

Deciduous trees everywhere — Asia, Europe and North America alike — probably would have developed this autumn red pigmentation change to avoid predation…But things began to change about 35 million years ago in the Northern Hemisphere, as the climate began to cool and glaciations set in. Trees and insect populations migrated and changed in response to the glaciations. And since then, the scientists say, Europe’s leaves have been predominantly yellow, whereas trees in East Asia and eastern North America have had the range of red hues.

Even with a logical explanation, the reds have a presence that has grandeur and mystery for me.

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Image from the Red Book, by Carl Jung

Another adventure in the specter of red: Currently on display at the Rubin Museum in New York is Carl Jung’s personal journal, the Red Book. From the New York Times:

In 1914, after falling out of favor with Freud, C.J. Jung lost his mind. Some scholars say he lost it by design, cultivating a psychic crisis to plumb the depths of his unconscious. The “Red Book,” an illustrated manual of the Swiss shrink’s inner world, is the product of all that plumbing. The leather-bound volume was considered so bizarre — and dangerous — that Jung’s heirs kept it under lock and key until 2007.

For others, the Red Book is the “most influential unpublished work in the history of psychology,” the Holy Grail of the unconscious.”

Regardless of your point of view on Jung’s state of mind, the existence of such a personal and massive assemblage of writing and imaging is extraordinary. In addition to the original book on display in a glass case, the Rubin Museum is exhibiting facsimiles of a number of Jung’s mandalas, illustrations and drawings. These intricate, brightly colored images are not an art statement as much as they are an invitation into the very personal iconography of one of the century’s most influential thinkers.

[Note: Accompanying the exhibition is a very ambitious lecture series called The Red Book Dialogues. Well known artists and thinkers are paired with psychoanalysts and asked to personally respond to the painted “dreamscapes” in the book. The list of participants is impressive— from Alice Walker to David Bryne to Cornel West. For more information, visit the Rubin Museum site.]

Redtrees

On our last autumn ride along the Charles River last weekend, I kept thinking about a quote from the Red Book:

The knowledge of the heart is in no book and is not to be found in the mouth of any teacher, but grows out of you like the green seed from the dark earth.

It was a crisp and beautiful day, the angled light filtered through the yellows, golds and reds. We rode to the end of the path in Waltham (far from the epicenter of Sunday bikers closer to town) where the river is slow and wide. Its presence felt primordial. Then, out of nowhere, we heard the distinctive drone of a bagpipe. There along the water’s edge stood a lone figure, his arms rhythmically bellowing the soft bag in his arms.

We stopped to listen as his sounds filled the empty air. There is a poignant longing in those notes, one of the reasons why the bagpipe is the instrument most associated with funereal solemnity and honored remembrance. It was also a fitting aubade to the filtered light of autumn. Like Jung’s knowledge of the heart, that moment of sound in the air on a crisp November morning was not of book or mouth. A green seed, from the dark earth, but of what I do not know.

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Best description of reading poetry I’ve found was in a review of Amy Gerstler’s latest volume, Dearest Creature, from the Sunday Times Book Review. Written by a fellow poet David Kirby, it is clear he knows of what he speaks: “Look, a poem either sends you a bill or writes you a check. You can use up too much of your intellectual and emotional capital, not to mention your good will, and come away feeling had. Or you can pat your billfold and say, ‘Hey, this baby just got a little fatter.’”

He goes on to flesh out the metaphor:

When I’m asked by fellow air passengers what I do for a living and reply, “I write poems,” the reaction is often a startled smile, as though they’re thinking Homer! Dante! Milton! (At least that’s what I’m thinking they’re thinking.) And then comes the lean-in, the furrowed brow, the voice thick with compassion as my new friend says, “But there isn’t any money in that, is there?”

There are some pretty snappy comebacks to this one, but what I usually offer is Somerset Maugham’s “Poetry is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five.” Actually, Maugham says “money,” not “poetry,” but that’s the point. Money and poetry both act as catalysts, and they bring together objects and experiences that wouldn’t have anything to do with one another otherwise. Wealth takes many forms, and sometimes it shows up as stanzas.

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I’m a big Kenneth Lonergan fan. In fact I’ve been a fan of his since he was about 12 years old, long before he wrote plays like This is Our Youth and The Waverly Gallery, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. Or his Oscar-nominated film You Can Count on Me, which he both wrote and directed. A second film written and directed by him, Margaret, has been tied up in a lawsuit for several years and is not yet released.

This fall he is directing his first play, The Starry Messenger, currently in previews at the Acorn Theatre. Starring Kenny’s childhood friend Matthew Broderick, the play has been the subject of some theater world sniping and gossip. The press has reported on rumors of ongoing changes to the script, the need for a prompter, and one cast member leaving in a huff. Blood in the water, so to speak, the kind that gathers the sharks from miles away. (An article in the Sunday Times Arts and Leisure section by Patrick Healy can link you to some of this.)

We saw the play on Thursday night with Mimi Kramer, another life long friend of Kenny’s, along with her husband Bill Bryk. We all loved it. It has those essential qualities that Lonergan lovers always look for, and more. The pitch perfect dialogue. The characters who are drawn from life with a precision that is uncanny. The mordant humor that could turn into a Pinteresque downward spiral—but doesn’t. The masterful steering away from those expected theatrical turns and overused clichés. The shy optimism that is still standing, albeit fragile, at the end of his storytelling.

More than any of his previous work, this play is full of midlifeness. The characters in this story (with one exception, which is an essential pole position in the dynamic of the play) are managing around their brokenness. The teacher of astronomy at the old Hayden Planatarium who, like the building that will be razed the following year, has been eviscerated by a life of almosts. The elderly man who has run out of reasons to keep fighting to stay alive. The wife who has funneled all of her life force into the orchestration of the insignificant details of day to day life. The daughter who is caught between caring for her children and her dying father, a duty she has taken on more because she lives nearby than wanting to share the final chapter of a rich and rewarding relationship. The young Latina woman who in just one night loses her ebullient optimism to the lifelong burden of tragedy.

Gone from this cast of characters is that previously signatory Lonergan young man—the one who is way too smart, who can see life’s absurdities and call them out, who is too angry and insouciant and yes, a bit entitled. But in this play Kenny has found a gulf stream for his wit and wisdom that passes effortlessly through these midlifers. What may not be as sharp edged as those adolescent jabbings is full bodied and poignant in these older voices.

I was struck by a comment made to Patrick Healy by J. Smith-Cameron, Kenny’s wife, who plays Broderick’s wife in the play: “Kenny is painstaking about his work,” she said. “It’s one of the things we have in common, we’re very interested in detail and thoroughness.”

Painstaking perfectionism isn’t always pretty in the process, but the results make the journey worthy. You feel the results of that microtuning in this play, and when it officially opens I am sure there will be subtle shifts that bring the storytelling into even more focus. But see it if you can, now or later. It runs through December 12. Ticket information here.

And as a final note, this one paragraph in Healy’s piece delighted me completely:

Mr. Lonergan said his experience on “The Starry Messenger” would not deter him from directing more plays, including his own, among them new works about the papal schism in the 14th century and a country-western singer having a moral crisis.

Warring religious factions or Tammy Wynette, I’m signed up for life.

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John Perreault’s popular blog, Artopia, has a recent posting that brings together a disparate variety of themes. Braided into Perreault’s personal ruminations is reference to “Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya”, the aboriginal art show at Grey Gallery (NYU), the “Mandala” show at the Rubin Museum, as well as a discussion of images also on display at the Rubin, “The Red Book of C.G. Jung” (newly released in English.)

On my way to New York to see both the NYU and Rubin shows, I will have more to write about both of these exhibitions when I return. Perreault’s posting is chock full of issues that are worth delving into in more detail, particularly given how boldly Perreault ventures into some controversial (sacrosanct?) territory. So more on this when I return this weekend.

Winner of the “best conversation between an artist and his/her son or daughter”:

My friend George is an artist whose work ranges from representational painting to highly conceptual installation work. He’s extremely facile, but sometimes that range of output can leave his various audiences a bit confused.

After his new body of work was greeted with a bit of a scratch to the head, George wrote to his daughter. Like me, George has produced progeny with a great set of eyes and intelligence as well.

This exchange between them is so heartening and smart, I couldn’t not share it here:

George:
There is some discussion re my ‘new’ paintings. Are they relevant, good? I am talking about work which I have undertaken last week; a rather
non-objective blue painting on white ground…I would be interested in your take on the work…is there is a younger audience who can pick up my message/my paintings?

There is a pressure for me to ‘make sense’ and since i am not writing essays or short stories, i don’t choose to cut myself off OR to try to
describe my ineffable stuff. But maybe your father IS out of touch….

Anne:
The problem is, I’ve got the same taste as you. Of course I think they’re wonderful. I can’t very easily project the thoughts of others.

As for the younger audience. The only thing that really defines generation x,y,z is a lack of definition – desperation to be new and different and ahead of the previous.

As for being out of touch. Well. There’s nothing to touch. On that note, perhaps, instead of asking, “are they ineffable?”, you should be asking “are they
ineffable enough?”

GeorgeAnne
George and Anne, back in the day

Anne and George in NYC[1]
A more recent view of George and Anne, in front of the Met Museum in New York City

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Ed Moses, Untitled, 1987 (Photo: Sylvia White Gallery)

Moses is a member of that increasingly interesting group of California artists that constellated around the Ferus Gallery scene (along with Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, John Altoon, Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha et al) back in the 60s. He has a new show at the Sylvia White Gallery.

This excerpt is from a new monograph on Moses that accompanies the show. The essay was written by Barbara Haskell (someone I have long admired) with a foreword by Frances Colpitt:

The constants in his work are an emphasis on gesture, on mark-making, and on an intimate connection with his materials. In addition, almost all of Moses’ work has a sense of three-dimensionality to it. One doesn’t just look at an Ed Moses painting: one enters it, almost in the way that one enters the subconscious during meditation. Moses has been a serious student of Tibetan Buddhism for much of his life, and this influence, the sense of living in the moment, is evident in his work. He says it most succinctly: “I don’t visualize and execute. Every breath is brand new. Don’t think of the future, don’t think of the past, the only factor is now.”


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shadow

I’m still combing the beach of Bly’s small book, A Little Book on the Human Shadow. In some ways this is a sequel to my earlier posting, The Thatness.

Bly is so open about his woundedness, in person and in his poetry. I don’t think I know of another poet who is so unabashedly brought to tears by the intention and influence of poetry and poetry making. Going to a Bly reading is like watching the street fill with water from a high pressure hydrant that has burst open. So no better voice to dig into this issue of shadow than his.

The last chapter of Bly’s book focuses on Wallace Stevens. Sigh. In many ways Bly comes down hard on Stevens’ later work, insisting that the later poems are as “weak as is possible for a genius to write.” His claim is that Stevens, for whatever reason, could not integrate his shadow into his proper, insurance executive, buttoned down self.

Here is Bly’s case:

There are some good poems, but somehow there are no further marriages in his work. Yeats’s work picked up more and more detail as it went on, the sensual shadow began to rise, the instinctual energy throws off its own clown clothes and fills more and more of the consciousness..

Why that did not happen to Stevens I don’t know for sure, but I think we have to look at his life for an explanation…We have the sense that Wallace Stevens’s relation to the shadow followed a pattern that has since become familiar among American artists: he brings the shadow into his art, but makes no changes in the way he lives. The European artists—at least Yeats, Tolstoy, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rilke—seem to understand better that the shadow has to be lived too, as well as accepted in the work of art. The implication of all their art is that each time a man or woman succeeds in making a line so rich and alive with the senses, as full of darkness as : “quail/Whistle about s their spontaneous cries” he must from then on live differently…

Wallace Stevens was not willing to change his way of life…He kept the house fanatically neat, evidently slept in a separate bedroom for thirty or forty years, made his living through the statistical mentality, and kept his business and poetry life separate—all of which amounted to keeping his dominant personality and his shadow personality separate in his daily life.

This willingness to allow life to follow where the art making goes speaks to the two quotes in the post just below as well. There is something undeniably irrevocable about descent, about the willingness to step into the forbidden territory that is the shadow. Bly makes reference to the 17th century theologian and philosopher Jakob Böhme who started one of his books by advising the reader to not go further unless he or she is willing to make real changes in his/her every day life. Otherwise, says Böhme, this book will be bad for you. In fact, dangerous.

Bly as the crotchety old guy he can be, claims that a whole generation of artists have come into being and have never faced this very personal and very particular dilemma. Is it the absence of some serious skin in the game? I see a lot of visual art that has made no demands on the artist’s interior life whatsoever. For this approach to visual expression (and one that is becoming the de rigeur approach of contemporary art pedagogy), the approved loci for work is the detached and depersonalized arena of politics and/or social commentary. My poet friends may have a similar map of how contemporary poetry migrated from where Yeats and others were heading.

No answers here. But the provocations are hefty.