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We all know about the works that don’t go well and never find their way to completion. I have a strong memory of many paintings that ate up enormous amounts of my energy, time and expensive materials but just refused to turn the corner and come back into the fold of the finished. They are my waywards. The recalitrants. The incorrigibles.

Dan Kois wrote about this in the fiction writer’s world in his piece, Burn Before Reading:

“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel “Fountain City” — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.”

I can’t help but take comfort in Kois’ assemblage of failed novels, many by writers who are prolific and successful. Some are darkly humorous about these forays into un-success: Jennifer Egan remembered her 600 page novel written when she was 22. “’I would send this book to people,’ she said, ‘and they would become unreachable. And that includes my mother.’” And Elizabeth McCracken spent over four years working on a novel before finally throwing in the towel. “’Oh my heavens!’ she said. ‘It hurt for maybe a week. And then I decided to be butch about it.’”

Being butch about bad trips down dead end roads does take some practice. It also helps to remember that the whole thing is sort of a mystery anyway. In the words of ultra-prolific Stephen King, “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub,” he said. “Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”


Portrait of Eleanor Heartney. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Eleanor Heartney, art critic and author of Art & Today as well as monographs on Liza Lou, Kenneth Snelson and Roxy Paine among others, has written a short but hard hitting piece on artnet that asks many of the tough questions not being addressed in the current cultural dialogue: What is art’s relationship (and obligation?) to society? What is its role in the current economy? How can the meaning and “usefulness” of art be evaluated?

Here’s an example:

I again heard the statistics about the collateral money art events infuse into the surrounding community, the dollar value added by artists and art institutions, the degree to which local economies are stimulated by the arts. Taking the higher ground, others argued that we should try to make the case that art is valuable because it instills critical discourse and participatory thinking.

But is any of it really true? If states are looking to stimulate the local economy, wouldn’t an infrastructure project have more long term effect than commissioning artists to install more giant art projects? Can one honestly make the case that states in danger of bankruptcy should be funding art festivals or even art classes instead of police forces, school lunches or Medicaid?

Heartney goes on to acknowledge that encouraging discourse is a worthy goal, but is that art’s job? Is art really up to that task? The issues are intertwined and complex.

Meanwhile, the class divide within the art world…(to say nothing of the even greater class divide in society at large) is bigger than ever. I have always been struck by Clement Greenberg’s famous assertion in his 1939 essay Avant Garde and Kitsch that the avant-garde remains attached to the ruling class by “an umbilical cord of gold.” Today, as private patrons who have benefited from America’s trickle up (or should we say gush up) economic policies call the shots at museums, preside over a burgeoning art market and style themselves as the New Medicis, Greenberg’s dictum seems truer than ever, and sadly, no one dares to yank the chain.

These are issues that are political, complicated and difficult. But Heartney’s point of view rings true for me. We would be better served with more discussion along these lines.

An excellent article about the Anselm Kiefer show (which I referenced in an earlier post) by poet and art critic Sue Hubbard is up on 3 Quarks Daily. It is sized for reading in one sitting, something I highly recommend to anyone interested in Kiefer, painting and/or contemporary art issues.

Here’s a passage about the Kieferian concept of oceans and words worth remembering:

For Kiefer the ocean suggests a primal, amniotic, pre-linguistic space, something without beginning or end, where time and space take on cosmological and existential meanings familiar from quantum physics…Many of the works include hand written texts, often the title of the poem scrawled like a repeated mantra across the surface. Kiefer has said that poems are “like buoys on the high seas. I swim from one to another, and with them I would be lost in the middle of the ocean. Poems are moorings in the infinite void where something emerges from the accumulation of interstellar dust: a bit of matter in an abyss of anti-matter.” His oceans are infinite spaces where numerous meanings intersect.

Hubbard’s final paragraph echoes many of the concerns I have discussed on this blog over the years:

Kiefer has said that: “in all the pictures in my mind, not even the most expert analyst could discover anything like a general idea or the God of living things. And without that, there is nothing.” He has been criticised for being theatrical – and it is a dangerous line that he walks – for there is always the possibility of falling into bombast and bathos. Yet in this increasingly frightening and unfettered world we need artists like Kiefer; artists with a seriousness of intent and vision who dare to look at the dark undercurrents of the human psyche, who are prepared to face what is tragic rather than endlessly celebrating what is glib, slick and ephemeral. In his essay Reframing postmodernisms, Mark C. Taylor argues that abstraction in art, following Greenberg’s dictates on painterly purity, gradually became empty formalism, which through Pop art and other commercialised movements lead to ‘the death of God’, or to put it in a more secular way, the erasure of the Sublime from art. It is this territory that Kiefer investigates. Yet it is as if, in this postmodern, ironic world, we are all too often embarrassed by his earnestness.

Note: Sue Hubbard has published two volumes of poems, Everything Begins with the Skin, and Ghost Station. Her novel, Depth of Field, was published in 2000. She writes about contemporary art for The Independent and The New Statesman.

Amanda Katz’s interview in the Boston Globe with personal favorite Neko Case produced this fabulous passage:

Annie Dillard is my favorite because she doesn’t write like a woman or a man. You know how hunters spray that stuff on them so deer can’t smell them? It’s almost like she can become invisible, as far as point of view. It doesn’t say woman or man; it just says human.

It’s so beautiful, but then it’s also, like, a rich bacon flavor. It’s like a bacon chandelier. It’s like a Swarovski crystal bacon chandelier, hanging in a log cabin.

Best description of Annie Dillard’s writing ever. And the image delights me.

Death and the Powers uses new performance techniques and an animated set, including a musical chandelier with dozens of Teflon strings that can be played by the performers. (Jill Steinberg)

What is it about live theater that is so compelling? Don’t answer that question, just indulge me while I ask it over and over again. It is the mystery of theater and what happens when you are there, in the flesh, that inspires, delights, excites, clarifies. I don’t really want to know why, I just want lots of it in my life.

And lately I have had lots. Not every performance hit the high notes for me, but there is always something that leaves a mark. I have a personal testimony of learning from mistakes as well as failure.

After seeing Elevator Repair Service‘s Gatz last year and being completely overwhelmed by its brilliance (I wrote about it here), I was eager to see another ERS production. Their latest performance in Boston is another mining of the sensibilities of the 1920s. The Select (The Sun Also Rises), is an adaptation (as opposed to the Gatz’s verbatim recitation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) of the ennui-ridden, disaffected characters of Hemingway’s novel. Gatz it is not. But then nothing could be, that perfect marriage of a brilliant novel with a theatrical skin that had been lovingly wrought, smooth surfaced and flawless. Yes, The Select has the theatrical staging that is becoming signatory for ERS—streamlined but highly flexible, fluid and yet sharp, clever but not too much so. But that elemental seduction that I love, where the story and the characters cross over and become a part of your internal landscape—that didn’t happen for me with this production. I watched for the moments that worked well theatrically, but it wasn’t an immersive experience.

Neither was Prometheus Bound, ART’s latest production in their alternative Oberon space. It is high energy, with a musical score that is accessible and tuneful, theatrics that are full gestured and high gloss (in a fun way), and the audience participates by being herded around on the performance floor. The subject matter is serious—abuse of power, betrayal, the evil of tyranny, torture—but a rock opera approach can only take you so far into that deeply sobering set of issues. But a spirited and full-bodied experience even so.

Boston has been abuzz with the premiere of Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera. The project belongs to MIT professor, composer and inventor Tod Machover (who was a gifted cellist when I knew him as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz) but Machover aligned himself with a stellar cast of mostly Boston-based collaborators: a libretto by Robert Pinsky, directed by ART’s Diane Paulus, production design by Alex McDowell and conducted by BMOP’s (Boston Modern Orchestra Project) Gil Rose.

The story and set up sounded compelling to me: Robots play out their version of a passion play for digital entities in the future whose ancestral human creators have since fled. The story is full of concepts that are incomprehensible to these digital beings, like death and suffering. As the robots take on these human roles and play out the drama, provocative themes and characters are introduced; a billionaire who wants to skip out on death and just move his essence into a digital form (referred to as The System and functions as a kind of fully ambient presence that lives in the walls); a disabled assistant whose functionality has been saved by technology; the wife left behind who longs for the body as well as the essence of her husband; and the dutiful Cordelia-like daughter who holds a compass of human consciousness for all the characters. When I read about the opera, I imagined that this could be full of the metaphysical explorations that were so moving in earlier works by Robert Wilson’s works (Einstein on the Beach, the CIVIL warS) and Philip Glass (his Portrait Trilogy—Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten).

Musically the performance was masterful. Machover’s blending of the electronic and the instrumental was richly textured and lush. The orchestra sounded spectacular under Gil Rose’s direction. But the libretto, offered up in superscript, was mundane and uninspiring, as small in stature as the music was big. The hopes for a poetic provocation were undelivered. I like the word my partner Dave used to describe its overall tone: indelicate.

While the technical advances employed have been talked about a lot (Machover heads up the Opera of the Future group at MIT), those techniques could not –and should not—shore up the sagging in other critical areas. Once again I was glad I was there, but I learned more from what didn’t work than what did. Which isn’t nothing.

Monologue of Ice, 24 Hours, by Atta Kim

This is a follow on to my earlier post about Grain of Emptiness at the Rubin Museum, a show that features works by artists who have been influenced and inspired by Buddhism.

From the catalog introduction by Mary Jane Jacob:

To make the most of experience and have it be transformative in positive ways, we need to cultivate presence of mind. The presence of mind….not only erupts in the conception of an idea for a work of art but also…is sustained throughout the act of making. The very act of doing cultivates the mind, and not “on some kind of theoretical level”…thus, the process of making is the art as well as the final result, the experience of doing is part of the whole: means and end are one flowing together…

So there is the need on the part of these artists to get the most out of the doing, the fullest experience. This phenomenon is achieved when “your interior and your exterior meet”…then the mind-in-making, being full present in the experience of the process, gives to the work of art its presence, too. It is this quality that draws us into a work that first was a revelation for the artist as it emerged from a process of creative inquiry. At that point the work of art “has its own energy”; “those are the real power objects.”

Anselm Kiefer’s ‘I Hold All the Indias in My Hand’ (Photo: Charles Duprat)

Anselm Kiefer is mounting a show at the White Cube gallery in London titled Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love). With a nod to a 19th century Austrian writer, the theme of the show references the mythological Greek priestess Hero and her lover Leander who drowns in the Hellespont while swimming to be with her. The works feature large photographs of seascapes that have been “Kieferized”—altered by way of any variety of techniques, from coating them with chemicals to running them over with a truck. In addition to the seascape backdrop, Kiefer has added additional images such as obstetric implements, Euclidian drawings, a model of a U-boat and the presence of Kiefer himself.

Nicholas Wroe quotes Kiefer in a piece that appeared in the Guardian:

“It is a show about impossibilities,” he explains. “Putting a Euclidian diagram on a seascape is about the impossibility of capturing the sea. The sea is always fluid. The geometrical figure gives the impression of fixing it at a certain moment. It’s the same as us imposing constellations on the sky which, of course, are completely crazy and nothing to do with the stars. It is just for us to feel more comfortable. To construct an illusion for ourselves that we have brought order to chaos. We haven’t. I might have been born into a very literal sense of chaos, but in fact that state is true of all of us.”

And this:

Throughout the 1970s Kiefer devoted himself to Germanic myths. He explored the forests where early German tribes had defeated Roman legions and which were an “infinite vessel of mystery, of fairytales, of childhood memories”. He absorbed the romantic sturm und drang of Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes and skyscapes, and delved deep into Wagner’s music and his place in German culture. “My mother once made me listen to Lohengrin on the radio from Bayreuth and it made a big impression. I was attracted to the idea of the holy grail as something far away and enigmatic and a sort of destination where you desperately want to get to, but you know you will never arrive. That sense of longing came to me very early in my life. And art is longing. You never arrive, but you keep going in the hope that you will.”

Longing. That is the best word to describe a theme that carries through Kiefer’s massive body of work. But what is it actually? How is it different from other terms like nostalgia, sentimental, maudlin, bathic?

In an essay by Isabella Willinger, The Politics of Sentiment vs. a Poetics of Sentiment, a helpful distinction is offered. She references two types of nostalgia–restorative and reflective. “The practices of restorative nostalgia try to conceal cracks, ambivalences, imperfections – the signs of historical time – in order to simulate oneness.” On the other hand, reflective nostalgia “’thrives in the longing itself’ – it dwells on the ambivalence of human longing and belonging. Instead of recovering a fragment of the past for the present, this second type of nostalgia is more an experimentation with time and space.”

From Willinger:

Reflective nostalgia could either be seen as a mere sub-item in the discourse of a dangerous nationalist nostalgia or – in other scenarios – it can come to represent the emotion ‘longing’ that is not necessarily reliant on its troublesome nostalgic sibling. Longing, I argue, is an extremely reflective mode, the self-distancing aspect of which is at the core of imagination itself. Longing, then, could possibly be seen as a search for the utmost range of experience. The disposition or emotion ‘longing’ seen in such a light becomes an incredibly important experimental ground of our culture, and in fact culture in general. It reverberates in Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura of the work of art before the age of technical reproduction. According to Benjamin, the aura consisted precisely in the unattainability – works of art were appearances of a distance, no matter how close they may be…From this perspective, longing becomes an oscillation between what is and what could be. Longing is about savouring different possibilities, about swaying back and forth in reflection, yet never quite arriving. In that way, it stands for the refusal of objectivity which postmodernism has discovered for itself. The rich semantics of longing, I am suggesting, stands exemplarily for the polysemy* of emotions in general.

I loved this circumambulation of thought.
*Polysemy is the capacity for a sign or signs to have multiple meanings, i.e., a large semantic field.

The Therme Vals, by Peter Zumthor (Photo: ArchNow!)

Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times piece about the architect Peter Zumthor is full of nuggets worth keeping on hand, easily accessible. I first began paying attention to Zumthor after visiting his Kolumba museum in Cologne. It was such an unexpected blend of old and new (Zumthor incorporated the ruins of a Gothic church as well as a chapel built on the site after World War II) in a way that both honored the past and melded it with the future. And the spaces were unexpected and yet organic. Zumthor is not tricky, clever, ironic or manipulative, all important qualities in art as well as life IMHO. Architectural critic Peter Rüedi pointed out that some may mistake Zumthor as an ascetic. He is instead an “essentialist of the sensual.”

I like Kimmelman’s comparison of Zumthor with some of the high visibility starchitects we read about constantly:

As the designer of some of the subtlest and most admired buildings of the last quarter-century, Zumthor has hardly been toiling in obscurity. But he has eschewed the flamboyant, billboard-on-the-skyline, globe-trotting celebrity persona, setting himself apart from, and in his own mind clearly somewhat above, some of his more famous colleagues. His works, even from the most superficial perspective, differ from Frank Gehry’s or Zaha Hadid’s or Jean Nouvel’s or Norman Foster’s, for starters, because they are not flashy: they often don’t grab you at all at first glance, being conceived from the inside out, usually over many painstaking years. Moreover, because Zumthor runs a small office and doesn’t often delegate even the choice of a door handle, he hasn’t taken on many projects, and most of the ones he has completed aren’t very big.

And later, this passage:

I’ve heard Zumthor’s detractors respond to this sort of argument by saying he’s a Swiss clockmaker. They stress that he thrives in a small pond but that the rough-and-tumble of global-scaled 21st-century projects demands a more flexible and grander vision. It is true that his projects are not enormous; there is an intimacy to his work. At places like Bregenz or the Bruder Klaus chapel, visitors respond not just to how his buildings look but also to their sounds, smells, to the light as it changes around them, even to the feel of the walls and floors — to what Zumthor has described as the “beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well.”

Zumthor is easy to compare with Louis Kahn and for good reason. His artistic proclivities and perfectionistic style sound familiar for those of us who are Kahn fans. He talks about being influenced by the work of sculptors Richard Serra, Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer, and he also references Joseph Beuys. “With Beuys,” Zumthor explained, “my interest has had to do with the mythology and sensuousness of his materials, the importance of his personal life in his art. He was looking at objects with history, with a past.”

The description and photos of Zumthor’s Vals spa hotel and baths are evocative and memorable. “The spa invests ordinary leisure-time bathing with a sacramental gravity. It lends existential weight to even the simplest, most banal rituals — walking from room to room, looking out a window, reclining on a bench, gazing up at the sky or hearing the splash of water and the echo of footsteps. Bathers move like supplicants through wet stone chapels,” writes Kimmelman. “Vals is not about an outside object,” says Zumthor. “It’s not about lap pools and slides and gadgets. It is about what happens inside, the bathing, oriented toward the ritual, as if in the Orient. It’s about water and stone and light and sound and shadow.”

A few more phrases from Zumthor that are worth pondering:

I think the chance of finding beauty is higher if you don’t work on it directly. Beauty in architecture is driven by practicality. This is what you learn from studying the old townscapes of the Swiss farmers. If you do what you should, then at the end there is something, which you can’t explain maybe, but if you are lucky, it has to do with life.

Solid wood has almost disappeared as too expensive, complicated and old-fashioned. I reintroduced it as a construction method here because it feels good to be with, to be in. You feel a certain way in a glass or concrete or limestone building. It has an effect on your skin — the same with plywood or veneer, or solid timber. Wood doesn’t steal energy from your body the way glass and concrete steal heat. When it’s hot, a wood house feels cooler than a concrete one, and when it’s cold, the other way around. So I preserved the wood-beam construction because of what it can do for your body.

I believe in the spiritual value of art, as long as it’s not exclusive. It is the same with architecture.

Nee Nej 2, from a new series of paintings I worked on this winter

I’ve posted this poem here already, several years ago. It resurfaced in me this morning and it feels like a perfect fit for the mood of my mind and spirit, heavy with the events of the last week. But that undeniable connection happens frequently for me with William Stafford’s words since my love of his work runs deep. I hope it speaks to you too.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

–William Stafford

Wolgang Laib and Milkstone

The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art is like the pocket-sized Shinto shrines that can be found all over Tokyo—an oasis of calm in a complicated and complexifying urban landscape. I have been a member since it opened in 2004 and spend time there on almost every trip to New York.

The current exhibit, Grain of Emptiness, features contemporary artists who have been impacted by concepts that we equate with Buddhism such as the void, the fleeting nature of life, the power of ritual. The works by these artists—Sanford Biggers, Theaster Gates, Atta Kim, Wolfgang Laib, and Charmion von Wiegand—are quiet, navigating that space between maker and viewer with dignity and mutual respect. The work ranges from installation to video to painting. An accompanying lecture series that happened over the fall and winter was reason to make me wish I lived in New York City again. The speakers included several from my list of favorites—Bill Viola, Wolgang Laib, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Patsy Rodenburg, Charles Renfro, among others.

Laib’s work has been one I have followed for a long time, and his installations of plates of rice and marble stones that are topped off with milk always move me to some place still in me. The images by Atta Kim are extraordinary as well.

Is it possible to describe what these works have in common or are trying to achieve? Hard to do. Apropos to the exhibit is a passage from the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (The Heart Sutra):

Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form:
emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness;
whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form.

And from the catalog preface by Martin Brauen:

Although, or just because, emptiness is such a central idea in Buddhism, approaching this Buddhist principle is hard for several reasons: first, because emptiness evades definition, it resists description or analysis. Emptiness is beyond conceptuality. It is nonconceptuality par excellence. Second, in the West emptiness tends to be equated with nothingness, a way of interpretation that can scarcely stand up to more precise examination but is nevertheless widespread. And third, even within Buddhism emptiness is a concept that is discussed and described in a variety of ways, which makes clarification more difficult.

One of my favorite phrases is from Wolgang Laib: “The ephemeral is eternal.”

So in the spirit of that ekphrastic urge to use poetry to describe art, here’s Alice Fulton’s contribution to the mystery.

Mahamudra Elegy

Then emptiness grew more empty,
the scent of scentlessness.
How could it be?
When emptiness is that which can’t be

emptied any more, neither malicious nor
a state that welcomes us
with munificent alohas.
I fingered it like an incision, fondled it

like a rosary of thorns, thinking
if every instant holds
the maximum abridged, tranquillity must be
somewhere in the mix. So concentrate.

A live volcano is the recommended site
for certain meditations. Think time
exists because a dropped glass
breaks and here we are existing,

witnessing the ornaments,
decorative yet dear. Mundanities
that dazzling seem extruded by a star.
Stellifactions. Mahamudra.

Words to conjure with. The great
seal, great gesture, the mahamudra
holds snowflakes to their certitudes of lace.
While fire thinks fire

is what everything aspires to, time thinks
through its helpless locks: its ambergris
flocked with a sailor’s buttons, its mud wasp
buzzing like a mini vac. Every solid is a clock.

–Alice Fulton

This poem appeared in the Atlantic and came to me by way of Carl Belz.