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It has been weeks since Steve Jobs passed on. Like so many others who have come to think of their Apple devices as virtual appendages, I had the distinct sense that his death was personal. Deeply.
I haven’t written about my response because there was so much that showed up that was so good. But when I think of this blog as a commonplace book that tracks my life and my evolving concerns, the absence of a post about Steve Jobs seems like a major omission.
So this is the placeholder adieu to a man I didn’t know as a friend but felt like I did. While I am from Redwood City and he is from Cupertino, it feels like we were kids from the same neighborhood. It’s that sense you have about someone who knows the same back streets and the best local restaurants, who knows where you could go during high school to sneak a cigarette and the best beach to hang out on in Half Moon Bay. It makes no sense, but yet it does.
I’ll borrow from Nicholas Baker‘s postscript on Jobs from the New Yorker issue with Barry Blitt’s poignant “The Book of Life” cover—God and Steve, together at last:
Everyone who cares about music and art and movies and heroic comebacks and rich rewards and being able to carry several kinds of infinity around in your shirt pocket is taken aback by this sudden huge vacuuming-out of a titanic presence from our lives. We’ve lost our techno-impresario and digital dream granter. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, in a letter, that when he’d finished a novel he felt like a house after the movers had carried out the grand piano. That’s what it feels like to lose this world-historical personage. The grand piano is gone.
One more addendum to two themes from earlier this week—the reopening of the Rose Art Museum (here), and my albeit very personal response (which has become, over the years, increasingly disapproving) to the Woman series on display in the De Kooning retrospective at the MOMA (here):
Former Rose Art Museum director Carl Belz was instrumental in bringing two pieces into the Rose collection that make their homage—on many levels—to De Kooning‘s still controversial paintings. One is by Mel Ramos and the other by Robert Colescott. They hang together, both large pieces, and seem to carry on the conversation that started so many years ago.
From the commentary provided at the Rose:
A giant of postwar American art, Willem (Bill) de Kooning, painted one of his most iconic words, Woman I, during the early 1950s. Former Rose director Carl Belz wrote in 2011 that it “inspired and haunted an entire generation of young painters,” who saw it a the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Two of those painters are Mel Ramons…”I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill #1″…and Robert Colescott, “I Gets a Thrill Too When I Sees De Koo”…
In 1980, Belz curated the exhibition, Mel Ramos: A Twenty Year Survey, which included “I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill #1” on loan. A year later, Belz’s friend Senator Bill Bradley gave Colescott’s painting to the Rose. The Ramos came up for auction in 1996, and Belz seized the change to add it to the collection.
Belz describes having the Colescott and Ramos on view simultaneously “as a postmodern appropriation, as an ironic comment about the comment about the creative act, as an oblique yet moving tribute, as a pictorial exploit, you name it, it [is] all there.
I also liked this quote from Ramos in 1980:
I was just really troubled by Willem de Kooning’s paintings at one time. So it was quite a challenge for me actually to try to attempt to do that painting just sort of outright, blatant, straightforward—here’s Woman No. 1—and still make it, you know, a Ramos painting.
…it was the kind of things that I was doing with that painting, that is, the involvement with the paint istself, the painting of brushstrokes, that is, the reconstituting of those brushstrokes, painting them visually the way they appear in magazines, as opposed to the way they actually appear on the paint, on the surface, which has nothing to do at all with the way they appear in magazine. You’re conscious of just so much energy and inhuman speed and transitory thoughts when you look at that work. So my painting is actually a painting of a reproduction of it, although it’s been slightly altered. I added breasts. I made a nude out of it. I painted it all flesh.
Last night the previously disenfranchised and much beleaguered Rose Art Museum on the Brandeis campus reopened with much fanfare, a celebration being called The Rose Art Museum at fifty. In spite of a torrential rainstorm, the museum was chockablock with donors, students, artists, patrons and, specially introduced to the crowd, art luminary James Rosenquist. A DJ played music from the 50s while crowds milled through the newly renovated space, eating and drinking in a party tent assembled at the front of the museum.
That temporary facade at the face of the museum is not without significance. Clearly there are lots of reasons to want to start fresh after an extremely unbecoming chapter in the university’s history. Roy Dawes, the new director of museum operations, gave a short speech as did new Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence (who recently navigated closure for the lawsuits resulting from his predecessor Jehuda Reinharz‘ harebrained scheme to sell off the Rose art stash to cover the university’s operating shortfall.)
OK. I get the need to start new and unencumbered. And certainly I am grateful, as is the whole art loving Boston community, that this amazing, AMAZING collection of art is once again available to the public. But in the opening ceremony, no one spoke about or owned up to the crisis the museum has luckily survived. I have to ask: Is the best path to act as if nothing happened? For those of us who have followed this story closely, it doesn’t bring a sense of closure. A fancy brochure reprinting highlights from the Rose’s first director Sam Hunter‘s 2001 memoir is not adequate cover for the fact that it was the strong arm of lawsuits brought by museum patrons Meryl Rose, Jonathan Lee, Lois Foster and Gerald Fineberg that saved the day for all of us 99%ers.
There is however one spot in the current exhibit that owns up the true account, and hats off to the individual(s) who fought for this to be included in the (re)inaugural show. That spot is downstairs, in the last gallery. Steve Miller‘s piece, seen below, was accompanied by this commentary on the wall:
Following a January 2009 announcement that the Rose Art Museum was to be closed and the art sold to provide funds for Brandeis University’s operating costs during a budget crisis, Miller returned to campus to work with students protesting the decision. Together they created a large canvas ATM sign, which was installed above the museum’s main entrance, as well as a slew of signs…which students planted across campus. The entire project amounted to a mock advertisement, proclaiming the Rose a place to get quick cash. It also declared that Art Trumps Money (ATM). The highly engaged reaction of students expressed the extent to which the museum’s original mission—to communicate, to forge links, to give students direct access to the work of living artists—made an impact.
In the wake of the announcement, museum supporters brought a lawsuit against Brandeis University to prevent the closure of the museum and the sale of art. The suit was resolved during the summer 2011 with a renewed commitment between the universithy and its museum. The Rose is collecting art and planning new exhibitions. No works of art were sold during the crisis.
So back to what really matters: The collection. It’s a feast. I know I will never take the Rose for granted again even though its caretakers often fall short.
More on De Kooning, Part 2
Another issue that emerged from spending the day at the De Kooning exhibit is a theme that I have written about here before: epic vs lyric; working large vs working small; the proclivity to grandiosity in contrast to the tendency toward the intimate. So much of De Kooning’s work is larger than life, a kind of willful overwhelmingness. It felt very different to spend time with his smaller, more intimate works—the drawings, the lithographs, the monoprints. Something shifts in the viewing, and it is more than just scale.
This tension exists in other aspects of creative expression as well. A recent article in New York magazine memorializes the early friendship shared by literati stars Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Jeff Eugenides and Mary Karr. The same issue is given a literary context:
Franzen was feeling pretty dismal, too, corresponding with Wallace about “how irrelevant we were feeling to the culture” as novelists—a subject Franzen would later tackle in a much-discussed Harper’s essay that tried to crystallize the question hanging over all of them: Was fiction about mastering the sweep of the culture in an innovative way, or was it about telling a more intimate story and delivering reading pleasure?
These issues have relevance for me when I spend time with the works of De Kooning as well as with other large scale artists like Anselm Kiefer. In response to my post regarding the recent documentary on Kiefer, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, artist Altoon Sultan left this insightful comment:
I used to be a great fan of Kiefer’s work, but in recent years the grandiosity, the heaviness, the sheer romantic male posturing of it has put me off. Oddly, I don’t feel this about Serra’s sculpture, where I’ve gone from disliking it to loving it. I think it’s something in the excess of emotion, to the point of manipulation, in Kiefer, while Serra is more formal.
I’m now much more interested in “infinite riches in a little room”.
(The last line refers to a quote I included in the post from a writer friend who summarized his position quite succinctly: “I have of late for reasons I know not why been much meditating on ‘infinite riches in a little room’”.)
It is another way to be and to see, that willingness to find those infinite riches in smaller formats. Maybe what I am really saying is that I would like for there to be more of both rather than skewed one way or the other.
With so many thoughtful and well written reviews already available of the MOMA’s blockbuster retrospective of De Kooning, it is easy to give myself permission to take a more personal jaunt through the seven decades’ worth of work on display. John Elderfield‘s curatorial mastery is in how he has assembled this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to track and study De Kooning’s evolution as a painter in a way never before possible. I have studied De Kooning for most of my life and yet I feel like I just now really get what he was doing. That’s humbling but it is also a treasured gift. As Roberta Smith described the show in her New York Times review, “It not only positions de Kooning far forward in a 20th-century American cavalcade of stars, it turns his career into a kind of Rose Bowl float of creative exuberance and invention.”
But that doesn’t mean I am in a state of rapture. In many ways this was a show that brought me to far extremes of response, all in the context of acknowledging the enormousness of De Kooning’s influence on the flow of art in my lifetime. He was the primary influence on most of my art teachers in the 1970s, and coming to terms with his work has been a consistent theme in my artmaking life. Some of these works were so breathlessly exquisite I became faint and had to sit down (like the cases of the “Uffizi effect” reported by James Elkins in his book Pictures and Tears.) But other paintings were frustrating and exacerbating.
I now have a much better sense of how different De Kooning’s intentions are from my own. For all his extravagant expressiveness, he still had a connection with form—primarily the body—that permeates so much of his work. Bodies are everywhere, much the way bodies are in almost every painting by Cecily Brown and Lucien Freud. This quote by De Kooning captures that pervasive orientation well: “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, color. I paint this way because I am can keep putting more and more things in—drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.”
De Kooning is also famously quoted as saying, “content is a glimpse.” And as Sebastian Smee wrote in his review: “What a carnal painter de Kooning was, and how mischievous. His other famous quote – “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented’’ – should never be far from your mind as you traverse this show, which bobbles with body parts slippingly glimpsed.”
The early works were revelatory. De Kooning was brooding, struggling with where this was going in a way you can see right on the wall. His color sense is more acidic than the effortlessly flowing sensibility he exhibits in his later work. Smee captures some of this struggle:
In these early pictures, you feel him wrestling with problems of space, trying both to compress it and carve it out, now with line, now with color, now with the paint’s facture (its surface qualities), with erasures and ghost contours, with smudges, scrapes and swipes. There’s a profound awkwardness to the results. But you know as you look at these works that the artist is in the grip of something, and murderously close to finding it.
And then there is the still notorious issue of the Woman paintings. They never spoke to me. While seeing them in context was helpful I was still in aversion. I like the words Smee used in his review to describe these pieces–“histrionic, hectoring, unresolved, unlovable.” Smee’s recent tweet captured my sentiments exactly:
Can you love #deKooning – really LOVE him – as I do, without loving Woman I, II, II, IV, and V? My dilemma, my pain.
But the high points in this exhibit are high. So so high. Rosy-fingered Dawn at Louise Point. Montauk I. Pirate. Untitled, 1977 (owned by the Mnuchin Family.) The way those paintings made me feel is so exquisite that I will have to come back to see the show again before it closes in January.
Tomorrow: Part 2.
I just returned from five days in New York and Philadelphia. This was a working and a viewing trip. Since returning home I have been folding and unfolding, folding and unfolding, my thoughts and feelings about the de Kooning show at the MOMA. I’m not ready to articulate a response just yet. I want to find a way to capture both my joys and my frustrations with this sprawling, overwhelming, revelatory exhibit. But in a manner that is both meaningful and personal.
In the meantime I will to share the words of a friend, words that achieve that meaningful and personal goal. Carl Belz has been writing about individual paintings he was instrumental in acquiring for the Rose Art Museum during his years as its director (1974 through 1998) on the blog Left Bank Art Blog. These essays are compact, engaging, insightful and endearingly personal. I hope he does every work of art he had a hand in acquiring.
This excerpt is from his response to the work of David Ortins. Belz addresses some of the fads and fashions that have affected the art world. I lived through both of these so his words resonate particularly for me.
Innovative techniques and new materials occasionally appear in art and quickly gain widespread usage, as collage did in the 1910s, or as acrylics did in the late 1950s, and their usage can initially seem to transform even the most ordinary pictures into objects of wonder. With acrylics, for instance, staining in the manner of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland quickly became a dominant painting technique, and by the middle of the 1960s we were surrounded by acres of Color Field pictures, each of them seeming more glorious than the last. Such was their allure, and it was irresistible; their surfaces were everywhere soft and inviting, their color effortlessly spread and glowed, and light breathed life into them as generously as in nature itself. You probably think I’m exaggerating in saying these things, but that’s the way it really was. At least for a while. By the time the 1970s were under way, stain painting had lost a lot of its original freshness and become routine and predictable—like collage, which at this point has been so thoroughly academicized that even school children practice it with ease. Which is not to deny the significance of Color Field painting as a whole, let alone the significance of its major practitioners. I mean only to suggest that new techniques and materials can sometimes infatuate you on impact, only to then cloy the appetite on which they feed.
The 1990s counterpart to acrylic staining in the 1960s is wax. Though wax has for centuries been available to painting in the form of encaustic, it took on new meaning with the highly personalized and autobiographic art that has proliferated during the past decade or so. Pick up a canvas or board, sketch upon it an image of a figure or paste upon it an old photograph, then pour on a coat of translucent wax and bingo, you’ve instantly got a visual metaphor for memory or some related emotional effect. In studio after studio I observed that practice, and I was at first as seduced by it as anyone else; remembering the sixties, however, I soon began to look harder at sure-fire effects that often failed to go beyond mere sentimentality, and I became wary whenever I encountered pictures incorporating wax…We were fortunate in being able to purchase one of those paintings for the permanent collection, and I especially enjoyed installing it once or twice in the company of our Louis stripe painting, because they communicated so meaningfully with one another, but also as reminders that the uses of new techniques and materials don’t always become cloying—in the right hands, they can actually make hungry where most they satisfy.
On the topic of art and political activism (discussed in my earlier post here): Susana Viola Jacobson, consummate artist and critic, left the following response to that piece. Her thoughts were too good to not share.
Very thoughtful piece. I wrestled with this divide for years and finally realized that painting is generally not a very effective tool for the politics of change, though it has been at times. My painting definitely isn’t useful in that way.
But art too works very slowly and most often on a small audience. It does help people figure the meanings of things, of their lives, so in that sense helps them be more purposeful and clear about what they do and who they are. It reflects our best and worst manifestations as a species, even when it is primarily geared toward entertainment, as long as we look at it critically. It does require us to work to get more out of it than a past time.
I’ve often found topical art too short lived in its effect and in making a clear point. It challenges boundaries and can break them for the rest of us, but then it tends to quickly become out of date. I’m grateful to artists who throw the pointed spear and make the first breach but I’m also grateful to artists who come before and after those moments and provide places for us to ponder, contemplate, absorb and reflect within their work.
We need all of it.
A note about Susana Viola Jacobson: Formerly at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania where she was a professor of painting, Susana now lives in Salt Lake City Utah. We shared a loft together on the Lower East Side in the 70s.
Aligning the work you do with the passions of your heart is not a given. My partner Dave worked for decades before he finally found a way to integrate his professional life with his personal desire to make the world a better place. (His organization, ReachScale, creates public/private partnerships to fund innovative social enterprises.)
But it isn’t so easy for me. I have not yet found a way to bring my political passions and my work as an artist into confluence.
I struggled with this discrepancy after 9/11. Other artists felt that same discomfort, and a number of thoughtful pieces appeared addressing that issue. If the work that emerges from your most authentic self is non-narrative, non-political, made by one person working alone, there just isn’t an easy alignment with ideology, at least not directly. So you do your work in one compartment of your life, and you advocate in another.
The Occupy movement has brought those bifurcated feelings to the surface for me again. This is a “finally!” moment for so many of us who were raised on believing in the power of bodies in the street and the impact of physical presence. This moment in time feels like a return to my roots. Like going home for a meal made by your mom—familiar and nourishing.
This showed up in Michael Kimmelman‘s piece in the New York Times, The Power of Place:
It so happens that near the start of the protest, when the police banned megaphones at Zuccotti Park, they obliged demonstrators to come up with an alternative. “Mic checks” became the consensus method of circulating announcements, spread through the crowd by people repeating, phrase by phrase, what a speaker had said to others around them, compelling everyone, as it were, to speak in one voice. It’s like the old game of telephone, and it is painstakingly slow.
“But so is democracy,” as Jay Gaussoin, a 46-year-old unemployed actor and carpenter, put it to me. “We’re so distracted these days, people have forgotten how to focus. But the ‘mic check’ demands not just that we listen to other people’s opinions but that we really hear what they’re saying because we have to repeat their words exactly.
“It requires an architecture of consciousness,” was Mr. Gaussoin’s apt phrase.
For me, living a few hundred miles from Zuccotti Park, it started with constant monitoring of the twitter feeds for #occupywallstreet, #ows, #occupyboston, #rootstrikers, #globalchange. Then Boston came on line. I expanded to helping out with donations and food. But on Saturday it moved out of virtual and into the visceral when I stood with thousands of others in downtown Boston to protest a dysfunctional world. How can you not want things to tilt towards a better direction, towards the creation of a world that is just, sustainable, good? How can you not be hopeful we can do better?
Designer Bruce Mau asked the same thing when he started the Massive Change movement several years ago. “I was troubled at the time by the mood of the day. What I saw was incredibly positive change, but the more I read [in the media], the more I saw people being convinced that the world is going to hell in a handcart.”
Then he found an extraordinary quote by the historian Arnold J. Toynbee:
The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.
I have found comfort in that quote for years, and now another good sign is Steven Pinker‘s exhaustively researched and important new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Is it counterintuitive to believe a better world is possible?
Our perceptions are deceptive. 24/7 news coverage is skewed to the negative. How can anyone get the full picture?
Several years ago John Cage was asked this question in an interview with Laurie Anderson:
“Are things getting worse or are they getting better?”
“Of course things are getting better. It is just that it is happening so s-l-o-w-l-y.”
So it’s Monday. Back to work. On both fronts.
Writing about writing poetry: It soothes my soul the way reading scriptures comforts believers. In an earlier post I referenced Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirschfield (here), an inspiring and thoughtful meditation on how poetry comes into being.
And now I have another to recommend: Recklessn ess, by Dean Young. Young’s approach is, as the name suggests, wild and full of unexpectedness. But this small book is delicious at every level. Where Hirschfield’s approach is methodical and carefully constructed, Young’s is more rhizomatic and unstructured. It feels like he took the topic and then turned it inside out—a riskier ride, but full of memorable passages. Guidance for beginners (Young is undoubtedly a great teacher) is particularly inspirational as is his thoughts for us old dog veterans. This is a book I could send to just about anyone who is a maker and know they would find easy entry.
This book was my steady companion during a recent visit to Utah, the kind of book buddy you need when you venture into a culture that is starkly different from the one you have claimed for yourself. Young’s book was my pocket sized guidance system. This, plus the backdrop of freshly snowed mountains and the discovery of Les Madeleines‘ heartstoppingly delicious Breton confection, the Kouing-aman, made navigation easier than I had expected.
I’ll share a few passages here now, a few more later on.
For Western culture, the movement towards/return to the primitive is lastingly vigorous from the early twentieth century on. Beginning in painting but extending into literature, music, and dance, the artist turned from mastery of illusion and technique to a more unmitigated, raw relationship with the basic materials of the medium, and, at times, a spiritual even mythological assertion of the rights and perils of the artist and humankind.
Purposelessness is not meaninglessness. I wasn’t put on this planet to explain myself. The variety of nature is too astonishing to explain as a form of utility, it’s just not necessary. Functional concern does not look for plethora, it looks for single solutions. god must have loved beetles, Darwin remarked of their astonishing array. Myriad minded let us be.
People use language for two reasons: to be understood and not to be understood.
Some things must be made opaque to be seen.
John Ashbery writes in “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” “Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.”
I always tell my students not to worry about originality; just try to copy the manners and musics of the various, the more various the better, poetries you love: your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.