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“In Kyoto …”

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield

This wonderful short poem feels like an appropriate adieu to 2010.

The collage above is by Susana Jacobson and dates from our days of sharing a loft on the Lower East Side, on Henry Street at Rutgers, so many years ago. We were in our 20s back then when she gifted this to me. And as is the nature of the mind, it feels like a life that was happening just a few months ago.


East First Street in South Boston on Monday morning (my studio is on the right)

Ice lace on my studio wall

The highlight of that infamous genre, The Christmas Letter (which is, let’s face it, a mixed bag) for me is the yearly book recommendations that arrive from my long time friends Mary Pat and Michael. Both are intelligent and thoughtful readers, and their recommendations provide a reliable compass for my book stack. (Michael is a professor of literature at College of New Jersey and author of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature.

Here are their recommendations from 2010. And with a storm like the one we have had here in Boston, curling up with a great book is the most appropriate response. These all sound delicious to me.

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Okay, so we’re a little late in our discovery of this novel, which was published in 1974. But it’s the most powerful book we’ve read in years. The Dispossessed is science fiction, but that’s like saying Moby-Dick is a fishing book. This novel set on an earth-like planet and its moon is as profound a meditation on democracy as the Declaration of Independence; it’s about the challenges of building a more just and equal society. Plus, it’s a terrific read, with spaceships and aliens and sex.

David Malouf, Ransom

You may remember the episode in The Iliad when Priam leaves Troy at night, steals into the Greek camp, and begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body. Out of these few lines from Homer, Malouf, an Australian poet, has spun a brief, beautiful, perfect book.

Ian McEwan, Solar

Michael Beard, the protagonist of this new novel by one of our favorite writers, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a complete scoundrel. Reading about his downfall, we kept laughing out loud. We bet that you will too.

Lynn Powell, Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response

Powell, a prize-winning poet, lives in the college town of Oberlin, Ohio. Ten years ago, her friend and neighbor Cynthia Stewart was led out of the house in handcuffs, charged with child pornography for having taking pictures of her daughter in the bathtub. This terrific legal thriller is both scary (there’s a this-could-happen-to-anybody feel to the story) and uplifting (the community’s defense of Cynthia, a much-loved schoolbus driver, is very moving). This year’s if-you-read-only-one-book pick.

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

The latest novel by this brilliant satirist is set in the dystopian near future, in a New York City filled with the callous rich and the desperate poor, a world of casual sex and shallow connections, where young people obsessively check their mobile devices instead of actually, like, talking with one another. Witty and deeply disturbing.

And as a postscript: Michael emailed me the following addition to his list which I include here as well:

Since writing them, Mary Pat and I have discovered our new Favorite Author: David Mitchell. I’ve only read Cloud Atlas, which is generally held to be his masterpiece. It’s simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I have to get Number Nine Dream, and I want to listen to his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, on CD. Mary Pat is currently reading Black Swan Green, which she says is terrific; as soon as she’s done, I’ll begin it.

A recent shot of my studio table

Some periods are creatively fecund, and some are not. After many years of being an artist, I have come to expect both the ups and the downs of a life in the studio. As I have observed many times on this blog, the nature of the work that happens there is the old Zen Buddhist adage, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Every day, the work of the work. The same before a painting comes together, and after.

Right now I am in a very rich vein. My sessions are starting very early and are lasting all day. Eight hours feels like two. My dreams at night are full of metaphors and images that address very specific technical and imaging issues that have surfaced during the day. It feels like every available channel is showing the same program.

This convergence is extraordinary, but it comes after several years of intense and painful struggle, the longest and most difficult period of my long life as an artist.

A good friend was surprised when I recently confessed to the extreme creative frustration I have been dealing with over the last three years. “I’m so surprised. You never let on that things weren’t going well.”

Which raises an important issue, one that concerns the private domain that is the creative process. Not every artist has difficulty sharing their day to day progress (or lack of it) as I do. But I recently had insight into another artist’s similar challenges in communicating that extremely inchoate and highly internal terrain. Joyce Carol Oates’ piece in the New Yorker, “A Widow’s Story”, is a memoir about the death of her long time husband Raymond Smith. In that account Oates makes an extraordinary comment:

Ray read little of my fiction. He did read my essays and my reviews—he was an excellent editor, sharp-eyed and informed, as countless writers who were published in “Ontario Review”, the journal he edited, said. But he did not read most of my novels and and short stories, and, in this sense, it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely…

For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.

In our marriage, it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, demoralizing, or tedious, unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer’s life can be distressing—negative reviews; rejections; difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers; disappointment with one’s own work, on a daily or hourly basis—it seemed to me a good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?

It may be a personality proclivity that drives one person to seek comfort through intimate sharing and confessional conversation with others while another takes a completely different tack. I go silent when I’m stifled, frustrated or discouraged. One friend says I retreat into my private cave. Sounds like Oates is a bit like me in that respect. Another famous retreater type is Jonathan Franzen who went into hibernation from everyday life for nine years to write his spectacular novel, Freedom. Some of his quotes regarding that withdrawal are quite extreme, like “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”, and “Every good writer I know needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. And what the Internet brings is lots of vulgar data. It is the antithesis of the imagination. It leaves nothing to the imagination.”

What a phrase: Every good [artist] needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. I’m not saying much, just nodding my head yes.

My recent reading of Montaigne has increased my interest in how simple, straightforward “how to live” advice is made available. In our era we rely on data to validate our claims, so contemporary advice takes on a different hue. I was struck by this when I came across The Ψ Project blog and a list of findings from studies during the year that yielded insights both useful and interesting. (These were originally assembled by David DiSalvo at Psychology Today.)

Here’s a sample from that list for 2010 which reads a bit like the 16th century guidance provided by Montaigne referenced in two earlier posts, here and here:

We spend almost half of our time awake lost in day-dreams…. And it doesn’t make us happy.

We’re happier when we’re busy, but are wired to be lazy.

The rich have no need to develop empathy. The poor do.

Forgive yourself for procrastinating, and the procrastination will stop.

Note: You can read DiSalvo’s list for 2009 here. A few samples:

If you have to choose between buying something or spending the money on a memorable experience, go with the experience.

Turns out, saying you’re sorry really is important—and not just to you

If you’re preparing for a specific challenge, make sure you prep for that challenge and not just ones like it.

Mississippi Gottam, by Mark Bradford

I’ve been a fan of Mark Bradford for a while (and most recently was completely knocked out by the Bradford in the permanent collection at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles), but the current show at the Boston ICA offered me new insights into his work. Because there are so many ways to enter into his work, pick any of many lenses—political, sociological, race-based, gender, abstraction, counter trends, arte povera, inner city aesthetics. So maybe this is a show that needs several viewings to appreciate the density of meaning and form that Bradford is pursuing.

In his review, Silent and hidden, in the open, Sebastian Smee does a very good job of describing my experience of seeing that many pieces hanging together:

Imposing and even quite grand at a distance, Mark Bradford’s paintings, like the sprawling cities they evoke, suggest ruins up close.

They are ruins — the ruins of other modes of communication, other forms of speech. One over the other, Bradford layers old billboard signs, maps, and street posters. They’re salvaged, shredded, stripped, glued on, and rubbed back.

Working intuitively, he converts all these materials and more into works of art that are dense with history, freighted not only with political and social readings but with an abiding, poignant silence.

It’s the silence that gets under your skin. To wander around Bradford’s superb survey show at the Institute of Contemporary Art is to oscillate between the desire to get up close and even to touch (the impulse to run your fingers over their corrugated surfaces is almost impossible to resist) and a growing sense that you are in fact looking on from unreadable distances, like a general watching a chaotic battle from the top of a distant knoll, or an uncomprehending politician flying high over a disaster zone.

These works are deeply moving and lush even though there is nothing lush about the materials Bradford uses to make them. These are collaged/decollaged assemblages of posters and signs–layered, tattered, worn, wrinkled. His works are majestic and yet fragile, complex and yet direct, deep and yet very attentive to the surface.

Bradford is articulate and open about his way of working and where much of his imagery comes from. He is elementally connected to his neighborhood in Los Angeles (his studio is now in the space that was once his mother’s hair salon where he worked when he was young), strongly influenced by being African American and gay, and deeply moved by the powerful thinkers he was exposed to when he studied at Cal Arts—Michel Foucault, belle hooks, Cornel West. His manner is gentle and unassuming. There’s little of that “look at me!” energy in his tall, lean and understated presence. Which is deeply refreshing.

As for Bradford’s place in the flow of things, Smee is astute in addressing Bradford’s decision to move towards abstraction AND towards painting, two problematic issues for those who follow art fashion (which is a fair term since the art world in its upper registers more closely resembles the highly trend-based world of fashion and celebritism):

On the face of it, the decision looks gloriously perverse. The ’80s seemed to sound a death knell for abstraction. Few artists were interested in it. Its possibilities seemed played out. People were hungry for content, for representation (in all its senses), for the righteousness and punch of politics.

Bradford was part of this. How, with his background, could he not be?

But identity politics can be cruelly deterministic — not to mention hostile to the uncensored movements of the mind, to art. As he began making major work in the early 2000s, a big part of Bradford sought to shake off the expectation that, as an artist, he would hit all the predictable notes.

Hence, perhaps, his attraction to abstraction.

Despite its utopian beginnings in Western Europe and the Soviet Union, abstraction in the United States has tended not to mix with politics. Even abstract artists with a strong political bent have kept art and politics determinedly apart: Ad Reinhardt, for instance, was politically active as a citizen, but there’s not a trace of politics in his monochrome paintings.

I’ll be back for another visit before it closes in mid-March.

And Yet the Books

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are, ” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

–Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by Robert Hass

Mary Karr does a fabulous serialized gig, available on You Tube, that she calls Poetry Fix. You can watch the one where she reads this poem, episode 17, along with all the others in the series. I’ve been a big fan of Karr’s for a long time so this is just more of her good stuff delivered quickly, deftly and with that LOL Karr sense of humor.

I don’t want to forget to mention that the poem is fabulous. Right up my book-loving alley.

This is an additional serving of Montaigne and an addendum to yesterday’s post regarding the book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell.

A few more passages and thoughts from the book…

On the relevance of Montaigne to our age and time:

Some might question whether there is still any meed for an essayist such as Montaigne. Twenty-first-century people, in the developed world, are already individualistic to excess, as well as entwined with one another to a degree beyond the wildest dreams of a sixteenth-century winegrower. His sense of the “I” in all things may seem a case of preaching to the converted, or even feeding drugs to the addicted. But Montaigne offers more than an incitement to self-indulgence. The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could cuse his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can outweight the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Bakewell suggests that some credit for Montaigne’s ability to be so open to others is because of his cat (and I’m all for giving credit to insights that come by way of a beloved four-legged):

She was the one who, by wanting to play with Montaigne at an inconvenient moment, reminded him what it was to be alive. They look at each other, and, just for a moment, he leaped across the gap in order to see himself through her eyes. Out of that moment—and countless others like it—came his whole philosophy.

In Bakewell’s page of Acknowledgments, she describes her unexpected introduction to Montaigne. The final sentence below, the last of her book, is a worthy one:

I first met Montaigne when, some twenty years ago in Budapest, I was so desperate for something to read on a train that I took a chance on a cheap “Essays” translation in a secondhand shop. It was the only English-language book on the shelf; I very much doubted that I would enjoy it. There is no one in particular I can thank for this turn of events: only Fortune, and the Montaignean truth that the best things in life happen when you don’t get what you think you want.

As unpleasant as air travel has become, it still serves up that delicious, “put your headphones on and block out the world” slot of time to just read. This weekend it was spent devouring Sarah Bakewell’s captivating and award winning book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Always on the lookout for innovative ways of sharing, expressing and communicating, I found Bakewell’s format well suited for our current style of information ingesting. Ideas are chunked into chapters that can be read easily from start to finish on a subway ride or in a waiting room. Perfectly sized at blog post plus, each chapter is one of the many answers Montaigne offered to his overarching question: How to live?

A few of my favorites:

Don’t worry about death
Pay attention
Question everything
Keep a private room behind the shop
Wake from the sleep of habit
Reflect on everything; regret nothing.

In each chapter we learn a bit more about how Montaigne employed his point of view. While moral dilemmas interested him, Montaigne was less compelled by what people should do. His focus was on what they actually did. His voice is so refreshingly nonmoralistic or instructional; he observes everything—other people, animals and himself—with a spirit of compassion, non-judgment and genuine delight.

Bakewell’s approach allows her to deftly bring 16th century France right up close to the window of our own world. From her introduction:

The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention…This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not exited forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne…

Montaigne created the idea simply by doing it. Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds…A member of a generation robbed of the hopeful idealism enjoyed by his father’s contemporaries, he adjust to public miseries by focusing his attention on private life.

In some ways Montaigne is a writer for middle age. I remember first reading his Essays when I was in high school. But the wisdom is the kind that rings true later in life, after you’ve explored a thousand ways things DON’T work. His willingness to say “who knows?” to just about everything (and that 100 years later enraged both answer-crazed thinkers like Descartes and Pascal) is a way of living in a world being torn apart by extremism.

A few excerpts:

Montaigne…proved himself a literary revolutionary from the start, writing like no one else and letting his pen follow the natural rhythms of conversation instead of formal lines of construction. He omitted connections, skipped steps of reasoning, and left his material lying in solid chunks, coupe or “cut” like freshly chopped steaks. “I do not see the whole of anything,” he wrote.

“Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone. I give it a stab, not as wide but as deep as I know how. And most often I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view.”

How puny is the knowledge of even the most curious person, he reflected, and how astounding the world by comparison. To quote Hugo Friedrich…Montaigne had a “deep need to be surprised by what is unique, what cannot be categorized, what is mysterious.”

As T. S. Eliot also remarked:

“Of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences, or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.”

Ah Montaigne, beloved master of the both/and.

Chocorua IV, 1966. Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas.
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
© 2010 Frank Stella/ Artists Rights Socety (ARS), New York. Photo by Steven Sloman.

In a recent review of the Frank Stella show, Irregular Polygons at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee ended with these words:

I myself really do admire Stella. There is such verve and liveliness in almost everything he has done. He has played the abstract game as well, as intelligently, and as thoroughly, as anyone. He has relished first abstraction’s self-sufficiency, and then its links with the outside world. And he has not been afraid to recognize its limits.

And yet other artists — even other abstract artists — so often look better. And when they do, it’s because their reasons for painting or sculpting the way they do go deeper. They’re more personal, more persuasive.

It’s not that you can’t feel temperament or personality in Stella’s work. His personality is too forceful for that. Rather, it’s that the personality you do feel is always floating away from the work. You’re feeling the restlessness of that personality, and — notwithstanding all of Stella’s spatial games — a sort of pond-skimming inability to puncture the surface of things.

His works are marvelous, and then they are not.

Ah, that ageless issue of taste. Of preferences. Of proclivities that make one artist more appealing to us personally than another. My good friend Carl, a lifelong Stella fan and about as knowledgeable on the man and his work as anyone alive, is so personally connected to Stella’s oeuvre that this dismissal by Smee was more than irritating to him. My response was that everyone who lives their life centered on the visual arts has their “anchor” artists, those two or three lynchpin individuals whose vision is so aligned to your own that you keep coming back to them over and over again. And Stella isn’t on Smee’s list, clearly.

Long ago I quit trying to achieve the highfalutin goal of detached objectivity and just surrendered to the subjectivity that runs my life whether I acknowledge it or not. Opinions about everything! Favorite foods, favorite movies, favorite artists—and oh so many topics to explore and choose favorites from. It’s feast of subjectivity.

My anchor artists? As a young art student the list was Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. Right this minute I’d say my list is Agnes Martin, Brice Marden and Richard Tuttle. But being the rampant subjectivist that I am, that could change tomorrow.


The water closing
over us and the
going down is all.
Gills are given.
We convert in a
town of broken hulls
and green doubloons.
O you dead pirates
hear us! There is
no salvage. All
you know is the color
of warm caramel. All
is salt. See how
our eyes have migrated
to the uphill side?
Now we are new round
mouths and no spines
letting the water cover.
It happens over
and over, me in
your body and you
in mine.

–Maxine W. Kumin

A poem for Dave, my partner of 31 years. To the day.