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Charles Burchfield, Gateway to September


Tanglewood in Winter


Autumnal Fantasy (This painting was not included in the original Hammer exhibit but was available for inclusion in the Whitney show)

How easy it is to think you know an artist’s work. I’ve seen Charles Burchfield paintings all of my life, but now I know that really isn’t the case. I didn’t see or understand his work until I visited the show currently at the Whitney Museum.

Now I can’t stop thinking about Burchfield. I am sending everyone to see the exhibit so we can do the exclamatories in unison. And to think that just a few days ago I had him squirreled away—as have so many others who have crafted a cursory narrative of American art—in the Regionalist catch all art drawer.

Burchfield (1893-1967) is actually category immune. He had no interest in being part of any school and said so. (Peter Schjeldahl at the New Yorker calls him a “one-man movement,” and Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo refers to him as an “American Modernist.”) He is definitely not a Regionalist, that embarrassingly dismissive term that dustbinned his work for years. In many ways he shares an independence that is also evident in several of his contemporaries like Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1886). But unlike those art superstars, Burchfield has remained below the art alert radar for most of us.

What I discovered is that the quiet and unassuming Charles Burchfield, denizen of small towns in Ohio and of Buffalo New York, father of five and a life long partner to his one and only wife Bertha, was a visionary. While his life’s work moves through a number of styles over time, what holds his oeuvre together is his fierce struggle to represent both his perceptions of the outer world as well as those of his private inner terrain. Using watercolors as his preferred medium, Burchfield’s ethereal and “almost abstract but not quite” landscapes feel as if they have been launched from another dimension, one that is multi-sensory, layered and complex.

This exhibit was the idea of Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. When Philbin saw newly purchased drawings by Burchfield at the home of sculptor Robert Gober, Philbin suggested Gober curate a show of Burchfield’s work. Fresh from his successful adventures in curating at the Menil Collection in Houston, Gober turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant candidate. The choices Gober made in this exhibit allow the Burchfieldian vision to unfold slowly and powerfully. (To hear Gober talk about his curatorial experience, here he is as part of the Hammer’s Watch + Listen series.)

Burchfield is the green man in the lagoon who sees things the rest of us miss. He said that he liked to think of himself “in a nondescript swamp, alone, up to my knees in mire, painting the vital beauty I see there, in my own way, not caring a damn about tradition, or anyone’s opinion.” He also said that “an artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.” Another journal entry gives this advice: “Paint the feeling, regardless of drawing. At dusk there is an ominous feeling of something huge and black about to descend upon the earth; this should be painted, not sky or clouds.”

His work is an exemplary example of the kind of art that Roberta Smith doesn’t see enough of these days: “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.” (For more about the Smith Art Taste Test, go here.)

The most moving pieces in the show for me date from two distinct periods in Burchfield’s life. The first is the year that is referred to as his “golden year”, 1917. The work flowed out of him effortlessly, without constraint. The second period is near the end of his life when Burchfield went through a creative crisis. He returned to that earlier period of time and expanded the vision of those powerful works. His later paintings become increasingly illuminating and illuminated. As Gober writes in the show catalog, “The works from this period of Burchfield’s life are immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature and are often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities. In these large, late watercolors, Burchfield was able to execute with grace and beauty many of the painting ideas that he had developed as a young man…And in so doing, he transformed himself and his practice, producing one of the rarest events in the life of any artist: great art in old age.”

Making great art until the end of life—that’s another extraordinary quality that Burchfield exemplifies. This passage is from his journal (which he wrote in assiduously most of his life): “How slowly the ‘secrets’ of my art come to me—it seems to me I have been searching all my life for this motif…; when I said this to Bertha, she said, ‘Aren’t you thankful that at 71 new secrets are being revealed to you?’ And I certainly am.”

I love when this happens, when a mad passion comes from something that was right there all along.


Insect Chorus, from his “golden year” of 1917


Landscape with Gray Clouds, one of my favorites of the later works (Photo: DC Moore Gallery)

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The dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses tends to push us into detachment, isolation and exteriority. The art of the eye has certainly produced imposing and thought-provoking structures, but it has not facilitated human rootedness in the world. The fact that the modernist idiom has not generally been able to penetrate the surface of popular taste and values seems to be due to its one-sided intellectual and visual emphasis; modernist design at large has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination and dreams, homeless.

–Juhani Pallasmaa, from The Eyes of the Skin

Note: I am in New York for a few days. I have queued up a few small-scale directionals, gentle proddings that shift the way to view the familiar.


White Tara, Dharmapala Thangka Centre

***
The hands want to see, the eyes want to caress.

–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

***
The dancer has his ear in his toes.

–Friedrich Nietzsche

***
How would the painter or poet express anything other than his encounter with the world?

–Maurice Merleau-Ponty

These quotes are included in The Eyes of the Skin, by Juhani Pallasmaa. And the eye in Tara’s hand has always intrigued me.

Note: I am in New York for a few days. I have queued up a few small-scale directionals, gentle proddings that shift the way to view the familiar.


Anna Hepler’s “The Great Haul,” at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. The sculpture is made from plastic and makes reference to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Photo: Scott Peterman)

Thank you Sebastian Smee, for addressing an issue that feels extremely personal and one that I have written about here many times: the demand to narrate the visual art experience with language.

In writing about the Portland Museum of Art exhibit by Anna Helper, Smee begins his article addressing this issue head on:

One of the cruelest burdens we impose on artists is the obligation to talk about their work. It’s not that artists should somehow — like children of yore — be seen and not heard. They are often the most articulate and insightful of commentators. (And why wouldn’t they be? It’s their work.)

But over the past several decades, in the academy, in the media, in front of collectors and curators, talking and writing about one’s own work has increasingly become, for artists, an expectation, a requirement. In some ways, it’s a burden, even a kind of violation.

Why? Because the inner compulsions of the best artists tend to develop in a place that is out of reach of language. And so when artists are asked to explain their work, the constructions they come up with can be smooth, convincing, terrifically interesting — and yet in some strange way a betrayal of the original impulse.

Smee focuses this line of thinking to the more specific realm of Anna Helper’s work. He notes that in the past Helper has referred to her work as being connected with nature. She has written about a particular work speaking to the “temporary perfect sphere’’ of a dandelion whorl, or how another piece suggests “flocks of birds converge in midair.’’

But, says Smee, her self-defined contextualizing has now shifted:

In a recent conversation, just days after visiting her during the installation of “Makeshift,’’ Hepler was suddenly eager to de-emphasize her works’ connections with nature.

“I used to constantly point out things in the natural world,’’ she says by phone. “But my work is not about those things. I don’t go to nature for ideas.’’

Instead, Hepler says she is trying to get closer in her work “to something mute and internal, a core, which has fewer links to the outside world.’’ She doesn’t want to negate her works’ links with nature. But her real interests (and here she gives the impression of groping for words) lie in “fundamental geometries that are evident both in nature and, somehow, in my own internal landscape. If that makes any sense. My work is like a 12th-generation Xerox of these [geometries].’’

Yes, yes and yes to Smee, to Helper, to this line of thought. Her distinction of not going to nature for ideas but turning to “something mute and internal, a core, which has fewer links to the outside world” is a point of view that I resonant with deeply. Her phrase, “fundamental geometries that are evident both in nature and, somehow, in my own internal landscape” is not a groping for words IMHO but one of the most insightful descriptions of a process that is, granted, very hard to articulate.

And the show sounds compelling, provocative, visually stimulating. I’m planning my visit now.

Show info:

Makeshift
Anna Hepler
Portland Museum of Art
Through October 17, 2010


Anna Hepler, Cyanotype 6, 2009, inkjet on rag paper, 36 x 47 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

If the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.

Richard Rorty, from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

What a provocative quote from the philosophical giant himself, and one that I have been pondering all day after spending some time on Mind Lab, a beautifully constructed site that enables you to experience firsthand the mysteries and vagaries of how the mind and eye collude. (And thank you to vetting machine extraordinaire, Maureen of Writing Without Paper, for this find.) What we think we see, we don’t. Do the experiments on Mind Lab and you will be aghast at how actively your mind is creating a reality for you that is just plain bogus. I kept thinking of a recent piece in the Boston Globe by Joe Keohane that demonstrates how difficult it is for most people to admit they are wrong. We trust our senses and yet it is clear from this site that making that assumption is a big mistake.

An earlier post here referred to architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s provocations around the role of peripheral vision in architectural design. I’m even more intrigued now about how peripheral vision really works and how it impacts our visual experience. And I don’t think the understanding I am looking for is just a scientific one. It has so many layers to it, bafflingly so.

Body. Mind. Seeing. Knowing. Who can say what is what?


Lowell Lieberman, composer

My sister Rebecca is a musician and composer, and I’ve been piggybacking off of her exquisite ear for most of my life. She first introduced me to the music of Lowell Lieberman 20 years ago and we have followed his music making with a quiet reverence ever since.

His approach to tonality and melodic line set him apart from the strongly atonal dissonance that has been so prevalent in contemporary composition. That is a position that hasn’t garnered him much encouragement from critics or his peers over the years. But traveling on another road is something Lieberman has been willing to do regardless.

In an interview with David Weininger at the Boston Globe, Lieberman shares a seminal experience from his years of studying composition at Julliard. Lieberman worked with the composer David Diamond during a period of heightened academic interest in serialism and atonality, but Lieberman was hopeful for approval when shared his first symphony with his teacher. The piece flowed through dissonance and into resolution, ending in a chorale like series of tonal chords.

As Lieberman tells it, “Diamond said to me, ‘You can’t do that! The critics will tear you apart!’ At the time I thought that was so strange for a composer of his status and reputation being concerned about what critics would think.”

Weininger writes:

For the young composer, the lesson was one he’s adhered to throughout his career. ”I’ve never paid attention to trends that were going on or what other people thought I should be writing,” he says. “I write the music I’m interested in writing.”

That determination to ignore fashion and follow his own compass has come in handy throughout his career…but he’s been a persistent target of critics who find his intensely lyrical works to be anachronistic and derivative. During the 1990s he was frequently referred to as a “neo-Romantic” or “new tonalist”…A 1999 New York Times article…offered a kind of backhanded compliment when it described [him] as “[caring] little about the modernist obsession with originality.”

Lieberman never cared for either moniker. He points out that his concern with musical form and organic unity allies him more closely with classicism than Romanticism, and that he does use non-tonal elements in his music. As a general matter, he continues, “labels are almost always oversimplications and just prevent a real valid look at the music itself.”

Weininger asks Lieberman to describe his own music, a question most artists (myself included) buckle at just a bit and usually try to dodge. But I like Lieberman’s very straightforward answer to that dicey request:

My aim as a composer is to communicate as clearly as possible. When you have certain pieces that are so complex and so personal to the composer that you need a user’s manual to figure out what they are trying to do, to me that’s a defect in the communication…that does not mean pandering to an audience or to what I think other people would want to hear. Because I think the only thing one can do as a composer is to write the music that you would want to hear if you were sitting in the audience.”

It is easy to draw parallels in the visual art world where trends are intense and defined, serving to mark off the territory into what’s cool and what isn’t. The current fad of idea-dependent visual imaging which comes with a highly cerebral text to decipher its meaning is a good example as is insistence on shock, entertainment or overscaling.

I remember wise advise from sculptor Petah Coyne from many years ago who said (this is a paraphrase) that everyone has their work to do. Maybe you will be lucky and your work is appreciated by lots of people. Maybe you won’t be popular at all. But even if you don’t have a huge following you have to do what you have to do. Making art that is authentic and that comes from that very deeply personal place does not pander to an audience. The temptations to do otherwise are everywhere, but Coyne’s law is to stay true.

Some would view her advice as a fatalistic and defeatist position. I heartily disagree. Lieberman is a good reminder of how creative conviction is both personal and essential. No matter what you think of his work, it is his. Undeniably so.

___
To learn more about Lieberman’s oeuvre, visit his website.


Photo: From the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Another evocative passage by way of Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin. (More quotes from the book here, and more will be posted in the future since I have been in a state of awe regarding this book for some time.) The role of the hand and the body in creativity is not trivial and yet easily overlooked.

The computer is usually seen as a solely beneficial invention, which liberates human fantasy and facilitates efficient design work. I wish to express my serious concern in this respect, at least considering the current role of the computer in the design process. Computer imaging tends to flatten our magnificent, multi-sensory, simultaneous and synchronic capacities of imagination by turning the design process into a passive visual manipulation, a retinal journey. The computer creates a distance between the make and the object, whereas drawing by hand as well as model-making put the designer into a haptic contact with the object or space. In our imagination, the object is simultaneously held in the hand and inside the head, and the imagined and projected physical image is modelled by our bodies. We are inside and outside of the object at the same time. Creative work calls for a bodily and mental identification, empathy and compassion.


Seth Gilliam plays Othello

Theater alert for Bostonians and anyone who might be visiting town through August 15: Do whatever you need to do to your summer schedule to see the spectacular (and free!) production of Othello on the Boston Common.

We are regulars and have seen most of the Commonwealth Shakespeare productions over the last 15 years. But this one is the best ever. And it isn’t just my spillover passion for anything The Wire. Seth Gilliam (who played an unforgettable Ellis Carver in the greatest TV series ever) is rivetingly pitch perfect as the Moor. (Imagine how razor sharp your first circle/third circle—in the Patsy Rodenburg theatrical sense—edge must be to explode that Othelloian emotion without going too over the top, and to do it for an audience that stretches from the stage all to way to Tremont Street.) Tight and tough, Gilliam’s Othello is not the towering Moor that is often cast in this role but his energy is blinding. Iago, played by James Waterston (yes, he’s the son), captures the banality of evil with such force my poor partner Dave spent a sleepless night after encountering that ambient but essentially meaningless ill will. And the ladies held up their end as well, Marianna Bassham as Desdemona and a best ever Emelia played by Adrianne Krstansky. The sets are simple and elegant and also work with the large crowds that a free event on a summer evening attracts.

Don’t miss it.

For more info, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.


7 World Trade Center: Lucid facades of glass, designed by James Carpenter (Photo: Wired New York)

James Carpenter was a glass artist for 30 years (and studying/collaborating with Dale Chihuly while he was at RISD) prior to his more recent involvement in architectural projects. His approach involves using glass not to just create enclosures but instead as a tool for “manipulating” light.

Fred A. Bernstein described Carpenter’s approach to architectural space in the New York Times on Sunday:

While “orthodox” modernists have long thought of glass as a means of making their buildings transparent, Mr. Carpenter said that for him transparency is far down on his list of concerns. What interests him, he explained, is “what is occurring on or in or through the material itself.”

In the case of the office building, which is scheduled to begin construction this year on a lot along the High Line, he talks of “privatizing” some light for the interior while returning the rest to the public, altered by its journey through high-tech sandwiches of glass. It’s an approach demonstrated in 7 World Trade Center, the Lower Manhattan building known for its unusually lucid facades.

There, blue metal sills reflect light onto and through the backs of clear-glass panes suspended several inches outside the building’s enclosure, producing an effect that Mr. Carpenter describes as “volumetric light.”

Volumetric light. That is a great way to describe how light becomes material and how elemental it is to the experience of viewing. It is a concept that is at the heart of my intentionality although it is very hard to demonstrate except when a work is encountered in real time, in the flesh.


Seeta 4, 16 x 20″, mixed media on canvas. The layering of light and image just doesn’t come through in a photo…


Anne Carson’s poem overlooks Boston Harbor alongside the ICA

First Chaldic Oracle

There is something you should know.
And the right way to know it
is by a cherrying of your mind.

Because if you press your mind towards it
and try to know
that thing

as you know a thing,
you will not know it.
It comes out of red

with kills on both sides,
it is scrap, it is nightly,
it kings your mind.

No. Scorch is not the way
to know
that thing you must know.

But use the hum
of your wound
and flamepit out everything

right to the edge
of that thing you should know.
The way to know it

is not by staring hard.
But keep chiselled,
keeping Praguing the eye

of your soul and reach—
mind empty
towards that thing you should know

until you get it.
that thing you should know.
Because it is out there (orchid) outside your
and, it is

–Anne Carson

This poem has been mounted outside the ICA, overlooking Boston Harbor. What a setting for an unforgettable poem.

While the poem stands extraordinarily on its own, here are a few comments about it that feather Carson’s nest ever so gently.

From a piece by Catherine Joyce in Arc Poetry Magazine:

***
In “First Chaldaic Oracle”, a poetic manifesto, Anne Carson examines the relentless pursuit of what remains forever out of reach. Her questing but playful voice, sounding through the architectural layering of tercets, captures the continual striving toward meaning, the poet’s elusive, shape-shifting art.

***
The images proliferate, tantalize, elude definition—and yet we sense there is something vital here, something passionate yet annihilating, overlooked yet liminal, even preconscious—so essential it trumps your mind, possessing, ruling, dissolving any subjective state. Carson drives deep to planes of reality one intuits but cannot name—beyond self, beyond world, hypnotic.

***
Only by going beyond our prescriptive borders of ‘self’ and ‘other’ can the rare, the mysterious, the unnamed—beyond all our definitions—be found.

_______
And from On Rationalizing and Oranges, an essay by Kea Trevett published in Mercer Street:

So much of real life lies between the lines of rational thought. The bigger questions are not the ones that can be answered on paper. They are what we tend to overlook or leave out—ideas that life suggests, hints at…The facts are word-bound, but the deeper truth, the confusion, the sticky messiness lies in the grey areas between the words…By trusting our intuition, by accepting the absurd, sometimes inexplicable reality of reality, we might find that the conventional boundaries of logic and reason only take us so far: sometimes they stifle true understanding. This is not to say that rational analysis never leads to truth…Carson urges us to see that sometimes, in pursuit of knowing a thing, a “cherrying” of the mind prepares us most.

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