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Agnes Martin at Dia:Beacon

The etymology of the term “jaded” surprised me. It has been traced back to a 14th century Middle English word for a worn-out horse, one that can no longer pull a cart or work the fields. It is about being wearied, exhausted, spent, bored, out of juice.

While the roots of the term are utilitarian and agricultural, it has now morphed into a condition that is all too human. It is used to describe someone dissipated through sybaritic overindulgence as well as a person who has worked with the public too long and just has no patience left for collective human idiocy. Sheer repetition of the mundane, like the barrage of noninformation that is Fox News and talk radio, can also result in a dulling and deadening of our response.

But it is overexposure of a loftier kind that troubles me most. In many ways it is the dark side of devotion: Our passions drive us to excess, but answering that appetitive call for more, more! can also come at a price.

James Elkins offers a cautionary warning in his book, Pictures and Tears. As part of his research on emotional responses to art, Elkins polled his art history and critic colleagues to find out if they had ever cried in front of a painting. He was amazed by the responses. Some said they remembering tearing up in front of a work of art when they were younger, but that had not happened since they became trained experts. Some of Elkins’ colleagues said they thought it would be viewed as extremely unprofessional for them to exhibit that degree of emotionalism toward a work of art.

Of course saving face (even though we could have a whole other discussion about what that means) is not the only reason a distancing takes place over time. Can you look at and contemplate art every day for a lifetime and still keep the fresh openmindedness that drove you to art and art making in the first place?

I fight this flagging in myself. I have to watch my thoughts with vigilance when I find myself glazing over. It can be a slow drift into disconnection, but the symptoms are obvious: Walking too fast past paintings I have seen hundreds of times; listening to the conversations in my head rather than letting my body feel and lead; feeling uninspired and well, jaded.

And sometimes you need to relearn enchantment from those who are new to an experience and fully present to the joy that comes from discovering art, music, writing for the first time. Yesterday was a good example. I brought two friends to Dia:Beacon, their first visit to a place I have been to many, many times. Yes I am still moved by Robert Irwin‘s vision for that former Nabisco box printing plant, and many of the artists on exhibit continue to speak to me. But watching my two companions discover room after room of extraordinary work—from Robert Ryman‘s rarefied explorations of white to John Chamberlain‘s phalanx of twisted metal stanchions to Agnes Martin‘s exquisite invitations into a silent stillness to Sol LeWitt‘s enchanted graphite tooling of walls—made me stop and consider how I have allowed distance and overexposure to detach me from the joy that is there, ambient and freely available. When I read what my partner Dave wrote about his visit, “Being in 3 rooms full of Agnes Martins definitely leads one to believe in a female deity,” I was reminded that receptivity does have an aspect of conscious will. Magic is happening whether we are tuning in or not. I don’t want to miss any of it.

The exquisite human handedness of a stuttering graphite line: Looking closely at an Agnes Martin painting


Image of a house on a mountain top, Sung Dynasty

Guston could easily play with the notion that the working artist aspired to be a demigod and, as such, would have to experience a peculiar kind of hubris—Guston’s own idiosyncratic hubris. This was one of his most distinctive leitmotifs, expressed in another way when he spoke of “a third hand” doing the work. That metaphorical hand becomes shorthand for describing an experience every true painter knows—that of transcending himself and his tools, as if following some ancient imperative. Sometimes Guston couched these thoughts in terms of the Sung painters, whom he deeply admired. He thought they did “something thousands and thousands of times…until someone else does it, not you, and the rhythm moves through you.”

This passage is from Dore Ashton’s introduction to Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge. The mystical sense of this idea—not a quality I typically associate with Guston‘s approach—can also be juxtaposed to one of Guston’s favorite quotes that was inscribed below a self portrait by Giorgio de Chirico: “What shall I love if not the enimga?” Or also alongside another favorite from Franz Kafka:

The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.

Third hand interventions, loving the enigma, talking a path that causes stumbling rather than walking—they all speak to what passes through the mind during a typical week. And all of it is in an effort to reach that moment when you can feel yourself “sunging”—the exquisite experience of having a rhythm that is moving through you.

A close up view of Candara, from a painting series inspired by space and planetary bodies

Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right—how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.

Anita feels it now as a tug toward the phone, though she knows
The ear at the other end isn’t there anymore. She’ll beat her head
Against the rungs of her room till it splits, and the static that seeps out
Will lull her to sleep, where she’ll dream of him walking just ahead
Beside a woman whose mouth spills O after O of operatic laughter.

But Tina isn’t talking about men and women, what starts in our bodies
And then pushes out toward anywhere once the joy of it disappears.
She means families. How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another,
Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something
Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?

–Excerpt from the poem, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

2011 will be remembered as a year with no novel deemed worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. But thankfully the poetry recipient, Tracy K. Smith, has the gravitas to hold her place singlehandedly. Her award winning collection, Life on Mars, is a rich inquiry, complex and yet accessible. She has said the poems were inspired by her father who worked as an engineer on the Hubble project, and a contemplation of space and our place in that immense order of things runs throughout the poems. In the words of one reviewer in the New York Times, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept—or at least endure—the universe’s mystery.”

Lenore Tawney, “A Wreath for Lillian,” 1969

My view of how art history is assembled and canonized was changed inexorably after seeing Pacific Standard Time in Los Angeles last fall.* The Getty’s outrageously ambitious and sensationally successful mega-exhibit about Southern California art between 1945-1980 featured 1300 artists at over 200 museums and art galleries.

Many if not most of these 1300 practitioners lived and worked on the West Coast, living under the radar of what was then an extremely New York-centric art world. The fact that they were not included in the canonical history of art during that era was not due to a lack of talent. It was more a lack of proximity, and a lack of likemindedness with the tastemakers and art insiders of the time.

Since PST hit with such force, the rewriting has already begun. As Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, “’Pacific Standard Time’ has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process.”

So now, post PST, I have more of an eye and a nose for unsung artists in that immensity of art, for those who missed out in the “narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process” for whatever reason.

This kind of artistic resuscitation is nothing new. The most famous case of a willed reassessment is probably Lawrence Weschler‘s “Shapinsky’s Karma” (which appears as a chapter in his book, A Wanderer in the Perfect City), the extraordinary account of one man’s campaign in a pre-Internet art world to bring visibility to a talented but unknown contemporary of Pollock and Rothko.

My project is more personal. Highly so. I started writing down the name of artists, many of them deceased, whose work I did not know but spoke to me deeply. As the list kept growing it needed a name. The Noncanonicals seemed to capture their outsider spirt with a slight twist of the defiance that many of them possessed during their lives.

Some of the artists on my list are from the West, but plenty spent their lives in New York as well. A high percentage of them are, not surprisingly, female. What started out as a little sidebar activity has now grown into something much richer than I would have guessed. I have been surprised by the joy of discovery.

Sharing these finds here on Slow Muse makes sense since many of us share a similar sensibility. Some of you will already know the artists I am highlighting even though they are new to me. Please share your stories and insights. In many ways this could and should be a Wikiproject, the art version of a community garden for previously forgotten heirloom plants.

My offering today is two artists I found at the “On Paper” show at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York this weekend: Anne Ryan and Lenore Tawney.

Ryan and Tawney’s small works were on display alongside a Larry Rivers piece. They held their own. The juxtaposition with Rivers, a high visibility art world star, is a poignant reminder of just how many great ones slipped by, under noticed and under appreciated.

Here’s some background on each of them.


Ryan was a poet, journalist, chef and artist. Leaving her marriage in 1923, she ran a restaurant in Greenwich Village to support her children. At the age of 50 she began painting and studied printmaking with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17.

When she was 57, her work reached a critical turning point. She saw a show by Kurt Schwitters and the connection was immediate. Collage became her passion. In the six years of life she had left before dying from a stroke, she produced over 400 collages.


Widowed after only two years of marriage, Lenore Tawney studied at the Institute of Design in Chicago with László Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Archipenko. Moving to New York, she blended her weaving and textile background with her interest in fine arts. According to Sigrid Wortman Weltge, “Tawney united the disciplines of weaving and sculpture in daring works that helped create the fiber art medium. Whether monumental or the size of a postcard, her art has always communicated at the deepest level with each new generation.”

Unlike Ryan, Tawney lived a long life, passing away when she was 100. She had more of an opportunity to build her career and legacy, with exhibits in major museums and a number of monographs on her work currently available.

*Note: I wrote about PST extensively in November and December of last year here on Slow Muse. A site search will pull up a slew of posts on the exhibits I was lucky enough to see.

Alexander Trauner, Street scene in Paris, 1930 (Photo: Trauner Estate)

The Surrealists were fascinated by chance, by the spontaneous event that might unlock the unconscious. They wandered the streets and let those chance encounters play out. André Breton‘s novel Nadja is based on just such a random encounter, and the character Nadja quickly comes to mean much more than a beautiful woman met by accident on a Parisian street.

The “inspiration by wandering around” approach advocated by the Surrealists has its own version online. The 21st century method is less aerobic but highly convenient: It is that five minute wait in line at FedEx that can also be a quick access portal to timely and compelling articles, blogs and websites. If you’ve done just a bit of vetting on your social media feed, you can sidestep a lot of the silly and stupid and get right to the relevant. And sometimes the timeliness of what you find is uncanny.

Here’s a fresh example. At a recent social gathering I ended up sitting next to another artist, someone whose work has achieved commercial success. My usual response is that any time an artist can make money (with the possible exception of Thomas Kinkade, R.I.P.), that’s reason to celebrate.

But I was unprepared for the arrogance and smug self-satisfaction, the self-promotional advertisement that came at me like a fire hose for most of the evening.

This encounter disturbed me on several levels. She’s borish at best but more at stake for me is a fundamental belief that art requires both confidence and humility. One without the other and it doesn’t work. It has been a long time since I ran into someone who had such an absence of the latter.

But here’s where that Surreal serendipitousness comes in. That night I came across the perfect blog post to put my discomfort with the evening aside. Ann Michael is a writer and a poet. Her blog post, Passion, art, doubt was just what I needed at that moment.

She starts with a quote from Henry James: “We work in the dark––we do what we can––we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Azar Nafisi cites this James quote in Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her memoir-based ruminations on James, she identifies deeply with James’ ambiguity, a trait in James’ fiction that her Iranian students find complex and difficult. She spends a couple of pages examining the problematic aspects of James’ work that frustrate and puzzle her students even as the same aspects appeal to her. She likes the doubt.

This quote, with its passionate appeal to the task of art, and its uncertainty, likewise resonates for me. My encounters with the ambiguity inherent in art stem from a set of experiences very different from Nafisi’s, and from James’. But our passions are similar in intensity, although I would probably tone down James’ phrase “the madness of art.”

It strikes me, now, that doubt is one of our tasks; for it is through uncertainty, curiosity, mild skepticism, and a willingness to weather the problems and puzzles of ambiguity that we keep alive our passion for the task of art, to make new, to express, to challenge, and to celebrate.

Our doubt as passion, our doubt as a task. I embrace it as an essential ingredient in staying open, in courting a wild and unexpected relationship with the uncertainty that is art making. Thank you Anne, and thank you so many others whose wisdom has shown up just in time.

Kathy Butterfly, Pillow

Sue Williams, Color Pile

Figuring Color at the ICA features works by Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin and Sue Williams. The intent of the exhibit is to explore the use of color and form to speak to the body: McMakin’s brightly colored and quirky sculptures address the human form; Butterly describes her enchantingly miniaturist ceramics as self portraits of a sort, and they are full of fleshiness, sensuality and seduction; Gonzalez-Torres’s installations of candy and plastic beads are his homage to the physical absence of a loved one; Williams’s paintings veer from R. Crumb-like portrayals of violence and war to a wanton sensuality of untethered expression, the body present throughout.

Curated by Jenelle Porter, the exhibition is on view through May 20.

The wall text did a good job of addressing the mystery that is color. A few memorable quotes:

The realm of color cannot be conquered by the intellect; it must be grasped through feeling.

–Rudolf Steiner

As I worked along, making the sculptures as they appeared in my mind’s eye, I slowly came to realize that what I was actually trying to do was to take paintings off the wall, to set color free in three dimensions for its own sake. This was analogous to my feeling for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if is some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.

–Anne Truitt

Color became the breath of bodies, every hue the aching limit of a life, as if is rose up from within the substance it covered the way feeling changes the color of the chameleon, or like those remarkable cephalopods whose configurations alter with their moods, or as, inadequately, our own blood comes and goes like sunshine dreaming among moving clouds.

–William Gass

Blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed.

–William Gass

We must again find the way to live with colors, to experience their inner life, and not just to look at them and paint with them externally. It will not help, from the point of view of painting, merely to study the play of colors by staring at them. The only way is to enter with our whole souls into the way red or blue moves, and to feel the colors’ living quality. We must bring to life what is in the color…by actually discovering what is in color, in the same way as the power of laughter is in someone who laughs.

–Rudolf Steiner

From “The Return” (Photo: Nathaniel Dorsky)

Manohla Dargis has written a stop-in-your-tracks kind of piece about the filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky in the Sunday Times. His rhapsodic appreciation of a body of work completely captured me even though I have never had the oppoortunity to see any of Dorsky’s films. (His book, Devotional Cinema, is now on order so there will be more about that here at some later date.)

These excerpts speak to more than Dorsky’s work, clearly:

Although the narratively conditioned brain may attempt to piece together a story from these images (once upon a time in winter there was a tree), Mr. Dorsky’s work requires a different kind of engagement. These are films created for contemplation, and they both invite and resist interpretation.

Although Mr. Dorsky gestures in certain interpretive directions…he never forces you down this or that path. Then again, what can the image of eye-poppingly purple flowers mean? “Interpretation,” as Susan Sontag memorably wrote “is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” A few pages later in the same essay, “Against Interpretation,” she extols transparence in art (and criticism), writing that it “means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” Art, as Sontag persuasively argued, doesn’t stand for something else but is itself a thing, and while Mr. Dorsky’s films can inspire explanatory reveries, they are also beautiful objects.

“If we do relinquish control,” Mr. Dorsky wrote in his short 2003 book “Devotional Cinema,” “we suddenly see a hidden world, one that has existed all along right in front of us. In a flash, the uncanny presence of the poetic and vibrant world, ripe with mystery, stands before us.”

Thoreau said that “you must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” There’s a similar imperative, an urgency, about being in the here and the now in Mr. Dorsky’s work, even if the world in his films is of his own making. (Thoreau wrote that it was “necessary to see objects by moonlight — as well as sunlight — to get a complete notion of them,” which nicely fits Mr. Dorsky’s duskier imagery.)

A scene from “Sarabande” (Photo: Nathaniel Dorsky)

Lawrence Rinder (Photo by Ben Blackwell)

I was introduced to the writing of Lawrence Rinder through his very unexpected and engaging introduction to the book Tantra Song (and written about previously on Slow Muse here and here.) Although he comes to art writing with serious credentials (he was the curator for the 2002 Whitney Biennial), Rinder’s approach to writing about art is (in my view) a perfect blend: He is globally informed but also willing to take it into the personal; idea- and context-rich in his assessments while leaving room for that which can’t be nailed down or figured out; articulate and persuasive in his writing but also refreshingly self effacing. I immediately felt at home in his view of things. So as is my nature, I am now going through the rest of his books and writings. The enjoyment continues.

Art Life: Selected Writings 1991-2005 includes 18 essays on topics ranging from Samuel Mockbee, the heroic founder and visionary of The Rural Studio, to Luc Tuymans, Louise Bourgeois and Sophie Calle. Every one is worth the read.

Rinder is currently Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a place that played a major role in my early years as an artist growing up in the Bay Area.

Here’s a few highlights to tickle your fancy just in case Rinder’s work is unfamiliar to you:

I have no idea what art is. I can’t think of a less specific term in our language (except, possibly, that often-used and essentially meaningless word “modern”). Perhaps the most accurate thing one can say about art is that it describes a zone of permission.

I recently met a well-traveled artist who spoke earnestly of the “one true art world,” a word consisting, he said, of the constellation of newly emergent international biennials within which neo-conceptualism is the contemporary lingua franca. How depressing. After struggling so hard to liberate ourselves from the constructions of the Greenbergian canon we run like sheep into a brand new pen. It is enervating to witness the rush of young artists generating globally-informed, media-savvy, interdisciplinary works that ultimately speak to no one but curators and academics.

Much of Minimalism…is boring to read about, but the experience of it can be great. In space, it acts. It’s crucial to appreciate this acting, this work that the art is doing.

In my professional practice, I have found that it is indeed much more pleasant, and useful, to wonder than to know.

A peculiarity of our time is that while few would claim to know what is going on, even fewer would part with their beliefs. In days past, a worldview that consisted solely of beliefs and little knowledge would have been considered a perilously fragile edifice. Today, it suffices. A world of belief without knowledge comes into being in the absence of doubt. Actually, it’s not that we have stopped doubting; we’ve just stopped caring.

It is surely a unique feature of our aimless age that we fully accept the utility of asking questions without any hope of receiving a reply.

What has made my work in the arts continually exciting and challenging and—I hope—useful, is that I have avoided resting on a comfortable bed of knowledge and instead have followed my heart to richer, if more ambiguous and challenging, territories. If, as Einstein noted, our world of definitions and propositions rests on shaky ground, this should hardly be cause for despair. Rather, it can be an invitation to a life of limitless wonders.

Moira Dryer

In the last few weeks I have had a number of conversations with artists and gallerists (using that term freely) about changes that are coming at us, each with its own velocity. Some are moving like a sea change, some are seismic. But the old forms are morphing, of that I am certain.

From pop up shows to self curated online exhibits to different distribution channels to alternative models (like gallerists Baang and Burne who describe the white box gallery experience as, “This is not what art should be. Why am I filled with dread and confusion when I should experience elation?” and are creating a different model) the old institutions are looking a bit rickety and outdated.

More evidence: Art historian and critic Raphael Rubenstein is the guest editor of the Brooklyn Rail’s ArtSeen section this month. Pointing to how a letter can be a powerful form of art sharing (which certainly was the case in the correspondence between Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo,) Rubinstein invited BR readers to use that form to participate in writing about art:

Perhaps the most important difference between a conventional exhibition review and a “letter review” is that a letter implies a response, or at least the hope for an answer; it is not the last word on a subject, but the opening of a dialogue. Lately, as an art critic it has, at times, seemed hard to know who you are writing for, hard to visualize the audience that is, you hope, engaged by your writing. And if you don’t know who your readers are, it’s hard to instigate a productive conversation with them. My desire with this experiment is to stress the necessary bond between writers and readers, and to encourage direct relationships between potential correspondents not via fleeting, truncated messages within a commercialized network of “friends” but through an altogether different kind of posting. As Paul Chan has recently observed (in a piece about his staging of Beckett’s Godot in New Orleans), “a voice that desires a reply sounds different than an echo that wants attention.”

What a great concept, and already the results of that invitation have been eye opening for me. Some were familiar figures, like David Rhodes writing to Philip Guston and Greg Lindquist to Robert Smithson. But Rhodes also wrote to the extraordinary Moira Dryer, a young artist who died in 1992 at the age of 34. Unknown to me previously, Dryer’s work now has me fascinated. And there are letters to living artists as well, like Sharon Butler‘s letter to Tamara Gonzales whose work is also very compelling.

More possibilites, more permutations. All good.

Here are a few letter samples:

Letter to Philip Guston from David Rhodes

Letter to Robert Smithson from Greg Lindquist

Letter to Moira Dryer from David Rhodes

Letter to Tamara Gonzales from Sharon Butler

What catches the eye and entices the imagination is a mystery. What snags me and holds my attention is often a surprise. Why does India endlessly compel? Why are fluid dynamics and ferrofluids so mesmerizing? The landscape of the desert, what is it about that barrenness that keeps pulling me in? And what is it about language forms, understood or not, that are so provocative?

There is a context that can enrich the way these questions are considered. In his introduction to Between Artists, Dave Hickey does his usual—he provokes, prods and delights in describing how artists navigate a confusingly convoluted and quickly morphing world. Hickey is good at being the agent provacateur. He is also very funny.

One of his themes deals with the downside of postmodern trends:

In the late sixties…the ideas of the artists as an originative, independent, litigious voice in the forum of cultural politics became intellectually discredited…the artist became a mere cultural producer whose work constituted a “collaboration” with the culture at large….In this way the work of art, which had been rendered mute and symptomatic by modernist theory, remained mute under the new regime, a voice symptom, while the artist, who had previously been allowed the occasional cri de coeur, was rendered mute as well…

This disenfranchisement of the artist’s voce is the consequence of a failed project by pop, minimalist, and postminimal artists in the late sixties to suppress the artist’s presence in their work, so the work itself might speak to its beholder—so the work itself might comment on the cultural context we all inhabit, rather than reflexively referencing the artist…So the artists of the sixties…strove to cleanse their works of the allegory of the self, sought to present their works as public declarations as transitive, rhetorical instruments of advocacy in the forum of cultural politics.

Hickey goes on to make his case with that Hickeyesque hyperbolic intensity and flair. What is an artist today? Where does art making fit in the cultural landscape? According to Hickey, the interviews in this book (which I have recommended earlier here and here) demonstrate the fact that it is not “high art” and that rarefied construct that have driven artists to their vocation:

Again and again we discover that the “threshold experience” of these artists took place on the street, that it has little or nothing to do with the experience of high art within the confines of high culture…most artists become artists because they find the art available to them unsatisfactory. “Artists make things because they want to see them,” Terry Allen remarked…”They make the art that’s not there for them to see.”

Artists, says Hickey, are the hedgehogs in Isaiah Berlin’s famous hedgehog/fox analogy, and these interviews speak to that reality. “They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation…We 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.”

What a welcome injunction: Fill it.

Ferrofluids: Images made with magnetic fluids and magnets

(To watch the creation of this image in action: click here)