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Colson Whitehead‘s contribution to the New York Times Book Review’s “How To” issue on Sunday is titled How to Write. You know, a topic that fits neatly into 11 easy-to-follow rules. Well, sort of.
It’s a funny piece. Famously smart and clever, Whitehead’s novels include The Intuitionist (which I loved) and most recently, Zone One.
And as is often the case, advice for writers (even when tongue in cheek) can also be be good advice for painters and other makers. Here are a few of Whitehead’s rules that may speak to the rest of us:
Rule No. 2
Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration…Once your subject finds you, it’s like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, “Only you understand me.” Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.
Rule No. 8
But of course!
Rule No. 9
Have adventures. The Hemingway mode was in ascendancy for decades before it was eclipsed by trendy fabulist “exercises.” The pendulum is swinging back, though, and it’s going to knock these effete eggheads right out of their Aeron chairs. Keep ahead of the curve. Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone.
The last and arguably most important:
Rule No. 11
There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? No…Most of all, just be yourself.
Most artists can remember those crucial moments that were turning points in their creative journey. These are events that are a more authentic tracking of a life than the customary biographical timeline; that marked up map of a well traveled terrain that is more personal, meaningful and accurate than a linear chronology can ever be.
Two of my first turning points happened at the San Francisco Museum of Art which, in those days, was shoehorned into a few upper floors in the Civic Center Building on Van Ness. I was young and just a beginner when one of my painting teachers challenged me to sit, undistracted and undisturbed, in front of the museum’s Mark Rothko for one hour. And sure enough, at the end of that hour my love of Rothko was cooked, all the way through, enough to last a lifetime.
A second turning happened just a few years later, in 1972. I was more experienced but still a student when an exhibit of Richard Diebenkorn‘s Ocean Park series paintings was installed at the museum. I knew a little about Diebenkorn from his Bay Area Figurative work, but these were something completely different. The minute I walked in that gallery—a visceral expereince that is still there in my muscle memory—I was transfixed. To me these large, vertical works were full of motion and yet quietly contemplative, both mysterious and direct, geometric yet painterly, soulful as well as cerebral.
I have never lost my love for those paintings nor the deep marrow pleasure they flush into being. Those feelings were in full flower in me again this week as I journeyed to the Corcoran Gallery in DC to see the last stop of the show, The Ocean Park Series. Assembled by Sarah Bancroft, curator at the Orange County Museum of Art, with previous stops in both Texas and Orange County, the Corcoran show is your last chance to see these works together. (The catalog for the exhibit, also by Bancroft, is a worthy purchase.)
In case you are not familiar with Diebenkorn or Ocean Park, here is a brief overview by Philip Kennicott from the Washington Post:
The Ocean Park series was a long and productive act of anachronism. Diebenkorn, born in 1922, had already produced abstract paintings in the 1950s, and figurative work in the 1950s and ’60s, before he moved to the Los Angeles area in 1966. In 1967, he surprised himself and his admirers by turning to abstraction again even as the rest of the art world was pursuing pop and conceptualism. While other artists were leaving the studio for more engaged and confrontational work, Diebenkorn turned inward, back to painting, back to work that built on what must have seemed like the tail end of a decades-long project to purify and elucidate the fundamentals of visual art.
I spent two days at the show. Some of the pieces are old friends. Some I have never seen before in the flesh. And it was such a pleasure to become acquainted, first hand, with a number of exquisite smaller works that are from private collections and will, alas, disappear from public view once again after the show is dismantled.
But those beautifully lit, graciously quiet galleries at the Corcoran also made it easy to slip into some personal inventorying. Sitting with those works, I realized how deeply those paintings were embedded in my consciousness 40 years ago. At some point they became like the faces of relatives, so familiar that they transcend normal methods of looking and seeing. There is a point when familiarity that profound moves you into another valence of relationship, to a rarefied place where boundaries melt and it is difficult to distinguish a difference between you and it. That’s when it all becomes an us.
Another facet of this work and this artist that is important to not overlook is what Ocean Park has come to say about Diebenkorn himself. He had a dogged commitment to his own vision of things. He wasn’t belligerent or a contrarian, but he stubbornly followed his own path. In a filmed interview that accompanies the show, Diebenkorn answers a question about who the audience for his work is by stating, “I paint for an ‘ideal viewer.'” After a brief pause he wryly added, “And that ideal viewer just may be me.”
That consistent allegiance to pleasing himself first and foremost was Diebenkorn’s proclivity as well as his protection—protection from the seductions of art world trends, fads, fame. For some of his contemporaries, his flinty independence was seen as a liability to his career. He was a stubborn man, says his daughter Gretchen Grant, but a man of unflinching principle.
A few more words to that point from the Post review:
From these early works in the series, it feels as if Diebenkorn simply floated out to open waters, to a place where the familiar shoreline of art was still present, remote but tangible, a thin, flat line on the horizon. Sometimes one senses the distant echo of architecture, the suggestion of a corner rendered in strict perspective, or of the beams and joints of a building seen in profile…
It’s always tempting to drag abstraction back to something more literal. But Diebenkorn’s work, even the late work with the possibility of some sad autobiographical reference, resists that. Instead, it works best in relationship to itself, an evolving set of gestures and meaningless referents. If one puts these paintings on a traditional time line of the fads and obsessions of 20th century art, they certainly feel anachronistic. But it was also a forward-looking project in that, more than anything else, it shows us an artist clearing space for himself, looking for a little serenity within the shifting currents of art history. Even the paintings, with the complexity all pushed to the margins of the image and large acres of gentle color occupying most of the space, suggest an ongoing attempt to find fields of silence in a world that hems us in with noise and distraction.
Since his death in 1993, recognition for Diebenkorn and his work has been steadily increasing. And for those of us who consider him the ultimate painter’s painter, it’s about time.
Carl Belz, Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, has been posting his views on a variety of art topics for some time on Left Bank Art Blog. His most recent article, The Color Picture Now: Feeling Foremost, is my all time LBAB favorite.
But that shouldn’t be surprising. This is a topic that speaks directly to the wheelhouse of my six years of writing on Slow Muse.
In this piece, Belz navigates his way through the postmodern era of art by focusing on the vision of three painters—Ronnie Landfield, Sandi Slone, and Darryl Hughto. All are, as Belz describes them, “fully schooled in modernism, and each absorbed from the start the ways and means of Post Painterly Abstraction, in particular its primary emphasis on a personal and expressive use of color.”
Belz does a succinct contextualizing of the work of these artists during an era that has not been, shall we say, painting-centric:
Postmodern sensibilities that germinated in the 1970s haven’t generally endorsed the value judgments guiding that synopsis of color picture history. Disillusioned by the failed promises of the previous decade—a reaction quickly transferred to 20th Century modernism generally—they’ve opted more for cultural deconstruction and critique, for irony, and for detached, anti-aesthetic interest than for quality and conviction. From such a position, the tradition extending from Matisse to Stella, say, is seen less as a pictorial achievement than a decorative art historical sidebar, an assessment echoing a concern that was initially voiced decades before, most notably by Marcel Duchamp, who, in the face of the Fauves and Cubists, declared the new art mere visual pleasure—in a word, retinal. As a corrective, he called for art to restore ideas to itself, the implication being that it would otherwise devolve to comprise objects lacking meaningful content, objects, that is, which were indistinguishable from ordinary things in the world, things that could only nominally be considered art, like bottle racks or bicycle wheels, for instance, instead of the real McCoy, like the things in museums.
Conceptualism’s critique notwithstanding, the colorist equation of content with feeling continued to figure prominently—as it had figured prominently since the late 1940s—across our visual culture’s increasingly pluralistic stage during the later 1960s and the 1970s. Which is when the three painters presented here…were coming into their early maturity.
Belz goes on to explore the work of each artist individually, accompanied by a selection of sample work. His point of view is respectfully admiring and thoughtful. A must read in its entirety.
The post concludes with this paragraph which resonates for me wholeheartedly:
Paintings I really like I think about living with, like the paintings of Ronnie Landfield and Sandi Slone and Darryl Hughto. The worlds they take me to are generous and accommodating, pleasured by art that is meaningful in and of itself, art that is justified simply by being, like nature. I like to think there’s room in my own lived world—even in the lived world at large—for that kind of experience. I share Matisse’s dream of “an art filled with balance, purity and calmness…a spiritual remedy…for the businessman as well as the artist”—even though I’m no businessman or artist myself.
Much of what I do each day feels difficult to describe. For those of us who spend a lot of time alone in the studio, it is often hard to know what’s really going on. I am grateful when I find others who can language some of these emotions and experiences. And seeing correlations to other forms, like music and poetry, is often very useful.
Alex Ross has a silken gift, writing about music in a way that feels effortless and inviting. His read every one of his articles in the New Yorker, many of which have been compiled in his most recent book, the excellent Listen to This.
He wrote a review recently of a new oratorio by one of my favorite composers, John Adams. The Gospel According to the Other Mary premiered in Los Angeles a few months ago, and Ross’s review has several references that resonate for visual art as well.
Ross refers to the progression to atonal music as having a “mystical aspect: these uncanny new chords could serve as esoteric icons, emblems of the sacred.” He points out how extensively twentieth century composers wrote sacred music, arguably eclipsing the output of the previous century. “Even secular-minded artists like György Ligeti and Morton Feldman wrote works of a spiritual nature, perhaps because their chosen language drew them towards the unsayable.”
Adams, a self-described “secular liberal living in Berkeley”, has “tilted towards sacred subjects” with many of his recent works, says Ross.
Regarding this latest oratorio:
A Passion play in all but name, it is a huge, strange, turbulent creation, brushing against chaos. The modernist tradition of the dark sacred, of the radical sublime, is alive and well; a composer who started out as an acolyte of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Cage has rediscovered his avant-garde roots, and those who prize him as an audience-friendly neo-Romantic are in for some shocks…it contains some of the strongest, more impassioned music of Adams’s career. Above all, it is a work of daring: a popular, celebrated artist has set aside familiar devices and stepped into the unknown…
At the age of sixty-five, Adams seems to be entering a new phase, revisiting the danger zones of twentieth-century style, and the first results are astonishing.
There is so much here to capture the imagination: the “dark sacred,” the “radical sublime,” the artist who is willing to step into the unknown and revisit “the danger zones” of style. Setting aside the familiar: That’s worthy of a mantra on my wall.
The difference between being a complainer (who wants that reputation?) and being a precise observer can sometimes be a fine line. I may be grazing close to the edge of grousing by sharing excerpts from two articles by art critic Karen Wright of The Independent. But they are worthy of note, and of discussion.
The first is from Wright’s reivew of the PST mega show in LA last fall (which I wrote about extensively here last November):
The artist John Baldessari is grumpy, or perhaps just tired. He has been dealing with the press, having received massive attention recently as the most included artist (in 11 shows) in the multi-show extravaganza known as Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA, 1945-1980…
When I asked his opinion of the show he said it was “BM” – “before money” – and that, in fact, all art in LA in Pacific Standard Time, and particularly at MoCA, could be defined this way. “BM” – that is, before artists had money. I entered the cavernous space with his words ringing in my ears. The last time I was here I saw a Takashi Murakami show, and the contrasts between Murakami’s work and Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 could not be more apparent.
Murakami’s mirror-like surfaces speak of money and of the factory. The shimmering surfaces are carefully polished, to remove any trace of the artist or indeed his many assistants’ hands. Tonight, these have given way to the simple objects and hand-worked surfaces of a group of artists, many of whom were deeply engaged with political or gender themes. We are talking about the height of feminism and race issues and the end of the Vietnam War, after all.
The second is from Wright’s short account of her studio visit with the painter Jock McFadyen:
Jock McFadyen’s East End studio is infused with the heady perfume of paint and turps. Painting, now seemingly the least fashionable of arts, is literally getting up my nose here. When I ask McFadyen if he minds practising the art form seemingly not at the forefront of chic curating, his defence is instantaneous and robust: “The great thing about painting is that it’s not fashionable.”
I ask if he always wanted to be an artist, and his response illuminates the current divide in art. “I don’t want to be an artist. I want to be a painter. The man in the street might think you make art out of dirt and string. It is embarrassing to be an artist.”
I’m with you Jock.
It’s an it.
It is a simple insight but a huge one, that an entity exists outside of yourself that is your inspiration. Some call it the artist’s gift, some call it creativity. But the idea that it is separate from you—that it can be addressed and spoken to (and cajoled and tousled with as well)—changes the dynamic considerably.
As an idea, this is rooted in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. But it does run counter to canonical views of contemporary psychology that everything is you, all the time, just you.
For those of us with a mystic’s bent, stepping away from that point of view isn’t much of a stretch. But I am always heartened when I hear a similar idea expressed by people I wouldn’t guess were ever members of my tribe.
In a recent RadioLab podcast, Liz Gilbert describes an experience she had several years ago when she interviewed the musician Tom Waits. Surprisingly, the crusty Waits shared his belief that every song has its own distinct identity and each comes into the world in its own way. He had learned this over years of struggling with the creative process. Some songs, he said, require that you sneak up like stalking a rare bird; some arrive fully formed “like a dream taken through a straw”; some are like bits of chewing gum you scrape off the bottom of a chair and wad into a new form; some have to be bullied and cajoled and given lots of tough love.
In a memorable anecdote, Waits tells about the day he finally took control of his creative anxiety. While driving down a crowded freeway in Los Angeles, he heard a melody in this head. No pen, no paper, no recording device, no way to capture this exquisite nugget of sound.
At first he dropped back into that old place of creative anxiety. But this time he looked up at the sky and said, “Excuse me. Can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist then remember I spend eight hours a day in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I’m sitting at my piano. Otherwise, leave me alone and go bother Leonard Cohen.”
Gilbert contends that this external entity actually wants you to jostle and rub up against it, to give it some edge. Pushing back is part of it and one of the ways you demonstrate that you are serious. Like Waits, she envisions a Gulf Stream of creative ideas circling the planet looking for available portals through which they can find expression. You get “portalized” by being at the studio, at your desk, doing your work on a regular basis.
As for the popular phrase, genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, Gilbert’s analogy is a memorable one: It’s 99% oyster and 1% pearl. But to get the pearl makes the rest of it a bargain.
The writer Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34. In spite of her short life, her legacy is a rich one, spanning a variety of métiers including philosophy, Christianity, theology, social justice, mysticism. And even though her life’s work was from her point of view of a god-centered believer, the atheist icon Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.”
Another young German woman, the artist Eva Hesse, also died at the age of 34. Like Weil, her short life had more than its fair share of difficulty and suffering. Also similar is the world’s steadily increasing interest in her body of work. With only a ten year career, Hesse was influential in the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Writing about a recent retrospective of her work, art historian Arthur Danto addressed “the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material…Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy…Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.”
I am amazed by the legacy of both of these women even though their work is not similar in nature or outlook. Each achieved extraordinary depth during lives that were improbably and tragically shortened. Spending time with either body of work is a sober reminder that suffering is perennial and life is short. That what you do each day is what matters most.
“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering,” Weil wrote.
Christian Wiman, also an admirer of Weil, responded to this statement in his essay Love Bade Me Welcome:
I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable…I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.
That last line is a Taoist-like insight: the need, every day, to break ourselves apart and start fresh. That is a concept that speaks to me deeply.
But is it true, as Wiman claims, that it is not possible to be conscious and comfortable? Maybe it is the word comfortable that leaves me looking for some wiggle room. What about being conscious and accepting, in the spirit of Wendell Berry‘s admonishment to “be joyful though we have considered all the facts.” Still finding my way through that one.
This post first appeared here in April 2007. In looking back through that period of time I found these quotes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari still relevant and useful. A Thousand Plateaus is one of those timeless books that continues to be a fecund source for ideas, stimulation, provocation, inspiration, insight.
I spent last week at the Ad:Tech interactive advertising and technology conference in San Francisco talking to people about where they see the Web heading and what life online is going to look like in a few more years. The range of future views I heard was, as expected, diverse. While I do not have a clear idea of my own about how all the plethora of possible scenarios will play out, what did emerge was the distinct view of this space as a potentiality, an undefined, nonlinear, anything-is-possible vortex. I kept being reminded of A Thousand Plateaus, the mindblowing, rhapsodic “book” (hard to call it that) by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A few salient quotes:
The principal characteristics of a rhizome: unlike tress or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.
A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.
Unlike the tree, the rhizome is not the object of reproduction: neither external reproduction as image-tree nor internal reproduction as tree-structure. The rhizome is an antigeneaology. It is short term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.
Once a rhizome has been obstructed, aborified, it’s all over, no desire stirs; for it is always by rhizome that desire moves and produces.
The wisdom of the plants; even when they have roots, there is always an outside where they form a rhizome with something else–with the wind, an animal, human beings.
Write, form a rhizome, increase your territory by deterritorialization, extend the line of flight to the point where it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency.
We have lost the rhizome, or the grass. Henry Miller:…”Grass is the only way out.”
Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don’t sow, grow offshoots! Don’t be one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point! Speed turns the point into a line!
Another passage from Christian Wiman* that speaks to poetry writing but could apply to all the rest of us who are inveterate makers:
Reality doesn’t need us. A poet knows this, and then, in the midst of a poem, when reality streams through the words that would hold it, doesn’t quite. W.S. Di Pietro, probably the most consistently compelling and idiosyncratic prose writer among contemporary poets, writes of the moment when one realizes that one’s “attempts to write poetry, with all its halting correctiveness and will towards coherence, is of no consequence to the starry sky.” And yet it was the starry sky that occasioned the poem, perhaps, that seems to be not simply its subject but somehow in the poem, of it. It is a calling, we say, trying to explain this need to make things the world can do without, as if the plain givenness of reality could ever be a call, as if a poem could ever be an answer.
The need to make things the world can do without. And yet.
Another great passage from Wiman.
*Other memorable passages from the poet Christian Wiman’s only prose book, Ambition and Survival are included in these posts:
This is a postscript to yesterday’s post with more on the theme of the usefulness of downtime…
Sam McNerney has posted a piece on Big Think called Why You Shouldn’t Focus Too Much in which he highlights the results of several recent studies on focus and creativity.
We’re obsessed with relentless focus. We assume that if we encounter a difficult problem the best strategy is to chug red bull or drink coffee. Drugs including Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to millions to improve focus. Taking a break is a faux pas, mind wandering even worse. Yet, recent studies paint a different picture: distractions and mind wandering might be a key part in the creative process.
The research McNerney describes helps explain why “prodigiously creative” people have a proclivity for generating solutions to complex problems spontaneously. As one researcher puts it, “This spontaneity is not the result of an innate talent or a gift from the muses but actually the result of the prodigiously creative person working on outstanding problems consistently at a level below consciousness awareness.”
Whatever the reasons, the research outlined here suggests that daydreaming and distractions might contribute to the creative process by giving our unconscious minds a chance to mull over and “incubate” the problems our conscious mind can’t seem to crack…let’s remember that daydreams and distractions per se never helped anyone—there’s a fine line between taking a break and being lazy (or maybe not). The more reasonable conclusion is that when you’re stuck don’t fear distraction and despite what your boss might think, let the mind wander. This, it turns out, is something creative people do really well. Thoreau might summarize it best: “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”