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My friend Robert Hanlon recently wrote me and said, “You are an expensive friend: you make me buy books!” Sorry Robert, but here’s another one I know you are going to want to read and mark up as your own. It’s a fortunate thing you are so good at selling your art.
Between Artists: Twelve contemporary American artists interview twelve contemporary American artists is a simple idea but oh so valuable. Reading these artists conversing with other artists (who are, in most cases, already good friends) is a bit like listening to really good mechanics talk shop with other really good mechanics—a lot of under the hood chatter, sharing of tips and the undefended discussion of the practical as well as the intuitive. In these conversations both the art and the craft of a body of work are worthy topics. Of course some exchanges are more resonant with me (I will be sharing some highlights later from my favorite, Chuck Close interviewing his graduate school buddy Vija Celmins) but all in all this is a volume I’ll be referring to many times in the future.
As a teaser, here’s a few lines from the introduction, written by the inveterate trickster king Dave Hickey:
The speakers in these interviews are saddled with the tragi-comic injunction to talk about that which they cannot: their art—to discuss that practice, which, were it explicable, they should not be pursuing, to explain those objects which, had they known what they were making, they almost certainly should not have made. Thus, Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog and the fox is applicable here. “The fox knows many little things,” Berlin explains, “the hedghog knows one big thing,” and artists, as artists, are almost always hedgehogs. They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation. So what we have here, between these covers, is the conversation of hedgehogs playing at being foxes. We do not get that one big thing, nor could we expect it. But we do get the atmosphere, the filigree of little things, of accident and incident, of nuance and desire, that surrounds the enormous absence that the work of art must, necessarily, fill in our lived experience.
OK. I haven’t seen the show yet. But Sebastian Smee‘s Boston Globe review of the newly-opened deCordova Biennial rang true of so many shows that I have seen lately:
I thought we had outgrown smarty-pants biennials, filled with arcane and self-obsessed art by artists hypnotized by the riddle of their status in the world, and audibly gnashing their teeth over what purposes they might legitimately serve…Actually, most good artists do outgrow this stuff and get on with making art. The trouble is, curators—for whom art-making often remains impenetrably mysterious—still love it. Or think they should love it. And so we have biennials and triennials that overflow with self-consciousness, with worn-out conceptual japes, and with lazy gestures of political consciousness that have all the committed warmth of a dictator waving his gloved hand behind tinted windows.
For my regulars I am repeating yet again. But reading this review brought to mind the quote from Roberta Smith‘s response to a similar show. Her words, like Smee’s, speak to a gap that exists between curators and art makers:
After 40 years in which we’ve come to understand that dominant styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop are at best gross simplifications of their periods, it often feels as though an agreed-upon master narrative is back in place.
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.
Her advice to curators is right in line with Smee’s response to the deCordova show:
They have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.
These things should be understood by now: The present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.
Message to curators: Whatever you’re doing right now, do something else next.
Smee did find a few submissions that offered something to the viewer. His closing line is a keeper: “These promising, good, or interesting things were outnumbered by lightweight gestures of cling film conceptualism—cut off from fresh air, refrigerator-ready, coddled in cleverness.”
I just love this guy. The image is pitch perfect.
*Here is Smee’s specific response to this work by Joe Zane:
In the main gallery, on the third floor, Joe Zane, a Cambridge-based artist whose work is pretty much the last word in conceptual onanism, has another sign, this one in gold letters affixed to the wall. It reads: “This is not the Biennial I was hoping for.” Reading it, I felt momentarily outflanked, my ungenerous, rube-like thoughts revealed and writ large. But then I registered the bathos of the gesture, and its reliance on that old teenage trope of being forever smarter and more sarcastic than your audience. After which I merely felt tired.
The past weekend was spent with my partner Dave’s family, gathering in Utah to remember his mother who passed away at 88. At her memorial service I was reminded once again that all of us have many identities and many versions of ourselves. The community where she lived saw a kindly older woman who loved children and taught them in Sunday School. Her family had a very different view. It is like the essential paradox of any biographical project: the story of a person’s life, no matter who they are, can be shaded and skewed. We are each an assemblage of multiple realities, a mini-Rashomon where all possible explanations of us and our lives are variations of the true.
This was born out as well in my recent devouring of all things Philip Guston. I fell under the spell of his insights and wisdom when I read Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations. More a talker than a writer, Guston is best experienced in transcripts of his conversations. He loved talking, and it is his preferred form. My copy of the book is now awash with underlines and comments. It has had a deep impact on my time in the studio.
Being so moved by his words, I felt compelled to continue to plumb the life of this complex, brilliant, driven man. Night Studio: A Memoir Of Philip Guston is written by Musa Mayer, Guston’s only child. Mayer is a particularly unique witness to Guston’s life: while she owns up to the unavoidably subjective view any child has of their parent, she also relies on her psychological counseling background to buy some distance and objectivity. She is intelligent and articulate, truthful and yet generous of spirit. I read her account cover to cover in one sitting.
Guston was an insightful and inspiring teacher, a devoted and passionate friend, an extraordinarily hard working and gifted painter. But the narcissism that seems to come hand in hand with the excessive drinking and hard living of that generation made him a destructive and difficult parent. The evenhandedness of Mayer’s account speaks to the deep work she has done over her lifetime to come to terms with the parts of this agitated, restless, gifted man.
Having read both of these books back to back left me feeling somewhat untethered, a bit uneasy. I am so inspired by his understanding of art making while I abhor who he was in his personal life. Like all of us, there is no one narrative to explain or capture the fullness of his life.
Whether a genius painter or a newly deceased parent, the best answer to the question of who they were is simply this: e) all of the above.
I was introduced to the writer Barry Lopez after reading his thoughtful introduction to John Fowles‘ timeless book, The Tree (more about that here.) One of the essays included in the collection, About This Life, describes a trip Lopez took to the remote landscape of Antarctica. Titled Informed by Indifference, this essay could have been written about a number of landscapes I have known and that have moved me deeply.
Antarctica retained Earth’s primitive link, however tenuous, with space, with the void that stretched out to Jupiter and Uranus. At the seabird rookeries of the Canadian Arctic or on the grasslands of the Serengeti, you can feel the vitality of the original creation; in the dry valleys you sense sharply what came before. The Archeozoic is like fresh spoor here.
I took several long walks in the Wright and adjacent Taylor Valleys. I did not feel insignificant on these journeys, dwarfed or shrugged off by the land, but superfluous. It is a difficult landscape to enter, to develop a rapport with. It is not inimical or hostile, but indifferent, utterly remote, even as you stand in it. The light itself is aloof.
The dry valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. The air is so clear the eye can fasten effortlessly on the details, on the sharp break of shadow creases, in distant mountains, making binoculars curiously redundant. The hues of yellow and brown, the tints of orange and red that elevate the sedimentary rocks above the igneous layers of granite, take the starkness out of the land but do not alter its line, which is bold, balanced, serene. Classic.
The stillness that permeates these valleys is visual as well as acoustical. On foot, traversing a landscape that is immense but simple, your point of view, looking right and left at the mountain walls or up the valley, changes only very slowly. I had sought this stillness; but unlike the stillness I’d found in similarly austere and deserted regions of the Earth—on the tundra of Ellesmere Island, in the Namib Desert—this stillness had an edge to it. I felt no security with the Earth here, no convincing epiphany of belief in the prevailing goodwill of human beings, which always seems in the offing in these irenic places. However the Earth consoles us in the troubling matter of civilization’s acquisitiveness, its brutal disregard, this was not the landscape for it.
I know the detached disregard Lopez describes, and its impact on me is solemn and stilling. And yet I am drawn back to those landscapes repeatedly, the ones where I am an interloper who wants a glimpse into forces and scenarios so much larger than myself and my human world. Coming up against the harsh reality of our smallishness feels like a dose of the take no prisoners treatment my grandfather used to dish out. There was no monkey business with him. And there is no monkey business with a landscape that is stripped, naked and ready for whatever shows up.
Lopez ends his essay with these words:
Whatever one might impute to this landscape, of beauty or horror, seemed hardly to take hold; my entreaties for conversation met almost always with monumental indifference. I have never felt so strongly that unsettling aloofness of the adult that a small child knows, and fears. It is hard to locate the reassurance of affection in these circumstances. And yet this land informs, some would say teaches, for all its indifference. I can easily imagine some anchorite here, meditating in his room of stone, or pausing before a seal shipwrecked in this polar desert.
Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want not to forget.
If you returned it would be to pay your respects, for not being welcome.
Wild parts of Utah are like that for me. I’m headed that way tonight for 5 days. We are going out for the memorial for my mother-in-law who passed away at 89. But hopefully I’ll also get a chance to taste some of that not being welcome as well. It is the best way to a reality reset.
In John Logan‘s play Red, one of the first topics discussed by the painter with his studio assistant is The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche. While Rothko waxes rhapsodic about the profundity of the ideas in the book he also takes time to brow beat his new assistant, a young artist, for never having read it. The arguments and insights as voiced by Rothko are still relevant and compelling to a 21st century audience, part of what makes the play so satisfying. And yes, the studio assistant does, in the course of time covered by the play, read the book for himself. Near the end he articulates his own take on its significance to his generation of artists. Nietzsche’s ideas have the ability to reformat as the pressure points in the culture change and morph.
So Nietzsche continues to be a vital force all these years later. Complex and complicated as a man and a thinker, his legacy still incites debate and multiple interpretations. A new book, American Nietzsche, by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, focuses specifically on the German philosopher’s imprint on American thinkers. Reviewed in the Times Book Review by Alexander Star, the book is a fascinating exploration of Nietzsche’s impact on the very particular drift of American culture. From the review:
Today’s inescapable and perplexing Nietzsche is not necessarily the same Nietzsche who inspired readers in the past…Though Nietzsche loathed the left, he was loved by it. As Ratner-Rosenhagen explains, the anarchists and “romantic radicals” as well as the “literary cosmopolitans of varying political persuasions” who welcomed him to America believed they had found the perfect manifestation of Emerson’s Poet, for whom a thought is “alive, . . . like the spirit of a plant or an animal.” To read Nietzsche was to overcome an entire civilization’s inhibiting divide between thinking and feeling. Isadora Duncan said he “ravished my being,” while both Jack London and Eugene O’Neill saw him as their Christ. Emma Goldman ended her romance with the Austrian anarchist Ed Brady because he didn’t appreciate the great author who had taken her to “undreamed-of heights.” For such readers, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” with its incantatory calls for a race of overmen to establish a new morality that would “remain faithful to the earth,” was the true Nietzsche. Thrilling to its rhapsodies, they felt confirmed in their judgment that pious, stultifying America was no place for a serious thinker. Ratner-Rosenhagen nicely writes, “Many years before members of this generation were ‘lost’ in Europe, they felt at home in Nietzsche, and homeless in modern America.”
Exploring the role Nietzsche played in the evolution of Emersonianism and postmodernism as well as the thinking of H. L. Mencken, Harold Bloom and Stanley Cavell is a worthy journey.
The final paragraph of the review captures an essence of his thinking that I have come back to again and again:
In a 1985 book “Nietzsche: Life as Literature,” the Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas argued that Nietzsche’s perspectivism does not imply that all beliefs are equally valid but that “one’s beliefs are not, and need not be, true for everyone.” On this reading, to fully accept a set of beliefs is to accept the values and way of life that are bound up with it, and since there is no single way of life that is right for everyone, there may be no set of beliefs that is fit for everyone. At its best, American individualism is not about the aggrandizement of the self or the acquiescent assumption that everybody simply has a right to think what they want. Rather, it stresses that our convictions are our own, and should be held as seriously as any other possessions. Or, as Nietzsche imagined philosophers would one day say, “ ‘My judgment is my judgment’: no one else is easily entitled to it.”
I know, it is easy to feel a bit of smuggish pleasure when an above-the-fold article in the Sunday New York Times articulates just what you have been saying for years.* Certainly I am not the only artist out there voicing advocacy for the way of solitude. There are many of us in that phalanx (metaphorical only!) who spend most of our days working alone and know that is the only way we can do what we do. But Susan Cain, author of an upcoming book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has brought the topic to a larger audience.
From her article, The Rise of the New Groupthink:
Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.
But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
In her article, Cain highlights the necessary introverted approach of Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak. And given the current spike in interest in Steve Jobs and Apple, this telling of the story is important:
The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.
But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.
Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
I am looking forward to reading the book. And for a few more converts—or at least more respect—for the hermet’s life.
*Here are a few previous posts on Slow Muse that touch on the value of solitude:
This is a reprise of a theme I have written about here before, but I can’t not revisit it again after having recently seen vibrant, extraordinary shows by women artists in their 70’s and 80’s. Many women artists who were shorted on the visibility and acknowledgements granted their male peers are making up for lost time. What’s more, they are still working and evolving, their shows full of fresh and lively explorations. (For more on this theme see my post, So Chic After All These Years, and an article in the Financial Times, In Praise of Older Women by Jackie Wullschlager.)
The current show of work by Lee Bontecou at Freedman Gallery continues the themes that spellbound so many of us back in 2004 when the Hammer Museum and MoMA QNS hosted a long-awaited retrospective of Bontecou’s work. She’s 80 years old now and going strong, still moving from playful sculptural forms (including two imaginative sandbox assemblages) to those meticulous and breathtakingly beautiful drawings. Everybody loves Lee Bontecou. With good reason. She deserves every accolade she is getting, arriving so late in a lifelong career.
Betty Woodman, also in her 80s, is another who has labored long and tirelessly. Married to artist George Woodman (who at one point was her ceramic student!) and mother to artist Francesca Woodman (whose current show at the SFMOMA knocked me out), Betty has been blowing out her particular blend of ceramics and painting for a long time. The show now on view at Salon 94 on the Bowery is wildly enchanting. It feels particularly celebratory, exuberant and life affirming. Woodman’s aesthetic feels ageless.
Pat Hickman‘s show at the University Art Museum (at U Mass Dartmouth’s New Bedford location), curated by my friend Lasse Antonsen, is a feast of texture and tacticity. I am new to her work and must thank Marcia Goodwin for encouraging me to catch the show before it closes on January 27.
On a similar theme: Like many of my female artist friends, we do The Count when visiting the contemporary collections on view at museums. How many women artists are on display? The Met score is improving. I know, it is slow progress. But on my last walk through there were works up by Jenny Saville, Susan Rothenberg, Ellen Gallagher, Kusama, Pat Steir, Bridget Riley, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Liza Lou.
One of my favorite books right now is Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists. I have so much more to say about this book, and hopefully I will write about it in more detail later on. But right now I want to share an excerpt that is particularly pertinent to my current preoccupations.
This exchange was captured in Michael McMillen‘s interview with Kim Abeles:
McMillen: One of the fascinating aspects of your work is that you reach into history and culture and drag out and synthesize things into someting that’s not quite historical or formalist but more interesting than both.
Abeles: I’m interested in making my art interdisciplinary because usually you see history as a package deal in a museum, especially in the United States. In Europe you can walk the streets, and history surrounds you. Because I grew up in this culture, the only sense of history I ever had was if I went to a museum and paid for my ticket. I would go in, and history was in a little box, neatly labeled. That makes it hard to get a feeling for your position in history.
McMillen: The fact that an object is in a museum represents one person’s point of view or a school of thought, whereas that’s not really what history is. It’s only one of many views.
Abeles: Right, because when people see history like that, or when they read a book, they assume that a fact is absolute. They forget that there’s poetic license, that there are editorial changes, so in a sense, it’s not real history, even though the packaging looks real.
The new Islamic Art wing at the Met (the official name, “Art of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia” doesn’t roll easily off the tongue) is a perfect example of the problem Abeles discussed. I have no frame of reliable reference with regard to the 13 centuries of elaborate, highly developed and complex culture covered in these rooms. It IS history in a box for the likes of me. But oh what a telling. I was utterly enthralled by every room. The advice a friend gave me was well taken: You can’t do it in just one visit. Plan to make pilgrimages repeatedly.
From Peter Schjeldahl‘s review in the New Yorker:
Clash or no clash, Islamic and Western civilizations hardly harmonize. Consider that almost none of the religious, courtly, and domestic objects in the Met wing were created for exhibition. They had uses. Many—very many—are beautiful. Beauty rolls in waves and seethes in eddies throughout the installations of dazzling ceramics, noble architectural fragments and statuary, fabulous carpets, enchanting miniatures from manuscripts and albums, and the extraordinarily varied and elegant calligraphy of handmade Korans, along with choice fabrics, metalwork, jewelry, and weapons. But it’s beauty with a purpose. The logic of Islamic art isn’t iconographic. It is poetic and all but musical. The Islamic wing affords adventures in difference.
What did the curators do to make every room feel so beguiling? The sensibility in the choices of artifacts and how they are assembled together feels especially aligned with contemporary Western tastes and aesthetics. A modern bent towards minimalist design and more subtle expression is evident. As a result, I have never felt so at home among objects and artifacts so far from my own Western cultural milieu.
Knowing so little but loving these objects so much, I think the best approach is to show, not tell. With no context to share other than the utter pleasure of the eye, I am like the opera goer who can’t understand a word of the lyrics but loves the music so much it doesn’t seem to matter.
In John Logan’s Tony award-winning play Red, Mark Rothko delivers a steady stream of tough love lessons on the meaning of art to his young studio assistant. Advice is rarely this engaging, provocative and timeless.
It’s a category all its own, giving advice. And advice in a field like art where transgression, the driving need to dismantle the previous generation, and pulling something out of nothing are de rigeur is particularly hard to give and hard to hear. Maybe this is more extreme for fierce autodidacts like me who never gave anyone else a seat at the head of my table.
But ambient wisdom (rather than the personal kind) is useful, and Red is full of it. So is the commencement address given by Richard Serra to Williams College graduates in 2008. Here is a passage that caught my eye when I reencountered it in my increasingly bottomless TO READ file today:
Rather than being told which tools are available for which ends it is more useful to invent your own tools: As Audre Lorde has pointed out, “ … the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Rules are overrated. They need to be changed by every generation. That is your most important mandate: If it’s not broken, break it. One way of coming to terms with the prevailing language of a cultural orthodoxy is to reject it. It may be necessary to invent tools and methods about which you know nothing, to act in ways that allow you to utilize the content of your personal experience, to form an obsession and to cut through the weight of your education. Obsession is what it comes down to. It is difficult to think without obsession, and it is impossible to create something without a foundation that is rigorous, incontrovertible, and, in fact, to some degree repetitive. Repetition is the ritual of obsession. Don’t confuse the obsession of repetition with learning by rote. I am suggesting a form of inquiry, a procedure to jumpstart the indecision of beginning.
The solution to a given problem often occurs through repetition, a continual probing. The accumulation of solutions invariably alters the original problem demanding new solutions to a different set of problems. In effect, as solutions evolve, new problems emerge. To persevere and to begin over and over again is to continue the obsession with work. Work comes out of work.
There is enough here to fuel me for weeks.
I am off to New York tomorrow but will be returning to Slow Muse on Wednesday.