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I just returned from a week in the Outer Banks with my three sisters. Beautiful and remote, that slim slice of land felt even more so with whole sections of the road washed out from Hurricane Sandy and only traversable via 4 wheel drive. Later in the week the road was closed down altogether due to wind and high tides. The only way back was a slow ferry to an out of the way corner of (very) rural North Carolina.
But being there was what matters most. Those grayed over skies and a frisked up surf presaging yet another storm this weekend were a perfect backdrop for my deep dive into the delectably oversized Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961 – 2007. Now back home after my OBX sojourn, nearly every page is marked up and annotated. What a feast. If Gerhard Richter‘s work speaks to you, this book is for you.
Here are just a few passages that I opened to at random:
One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.
Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.
Uncertainty is part of me; it’s a basic premise of my work. After all, we have no objective justification for feeling certain about anything. Certainty is for fools, or liars.
Any thoughts on my part about the ‘construction’ of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything—by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned.
I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive ability. My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures—even though they are a law unto themselves, even though they treat me any way they lie and somehow just take shape.
It seems to me that the invention of the readymade was the invention of reality. It was the crucial discovery that what counts is reality, not any world-view whatever. Since then, painting has never represented reality; it has been reality (creating itself.)
Everything you can think of—the feeblemindedness, the stupid ideas, the gimcrack constructions and speculations, the amazing inventions and the glaring juxtapositions—the things you can’t help seeing a million times over, day in and day out; the impoverishment and the cocksure ineptitude—I paint all that away, out of myself, out of my head, when I first start on a picture. That is my foundation, my ground. I get rid of that in the first few layers, which I destroy, layer by layer, until all the facile feeblemindedness has gone.
The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality.
Question: You do abstract and realistic paintings at the same time. Isn’t that a great contradiction?
The means you use to organize it are the same: the same structure, the same contrasts…But there is a difference in what I call the climate. For example, the landscape are peaceful and sentimental. The abstract works are more emotional, more aggressive. I look for these differences of climate.
I believe I am looking for rightness. My work has so much to do with reality that I wanted to have a corresponding rightness. That excludes painting in imitation. In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colors fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.
It follows that art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality; that art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us (the banal future, just as much as the intrinsically unknowable); that art has a formative and therapeutic, consolatory and informative, investigative and speculative function; it is thus not only existential pleasure but Utopia.
And when the mind is immersed so deeply, everything is seen through that Richterian lens. Beach, sand, water—all elements that speak a similar language.
I wasn’t familiar with the poet Christian Wiman before watching his interview with Bill Moyers. But his tone in that conversation—the comfort with the “don’t know” mind, a willingness to drop into the interior landscape in spite of many prevailing cultural trends that favor distance and detachment, a fearlessness in facing up to the exacting demands of the creative life—was so singular and memorable that I immediately ordered a volume of his poems and his only prose book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.
Once I started reading the essays in A&E, there was no putting it down. It is all I’ve read for days. Already well worn and dog-eared, my copy has marks and annotations on every page. What a great book. What an extraordinary writer.
Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and has published several volumes of his own work. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of blood cancer, one that mysteriously might end his life immediately or then again, may not. The profound precariousness of his life has, understandably, sharpened and concentrated his wisdom about poetry and about life. He has a voice that merges the poetic with the spiritual without falling prey to the usual disbalancing distortions that often occur when those two are coupled up. What is often a source of discomfort for many contemporary readers is a seamless ride in Wiman’s world. The refiner’s fire of his life has clarified and crystallized the personal into something much larger than one man’s journey, one man’s life.
There’s food for weeks in this book (and I’ll be pulling more from it in future posts) but here’s a few samplings to whet your appetite for Wimanian wisdom:
Any writing that is merely personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is…inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.
There are people of abstract passion, people whose emotional lives are intense but, for one reason or another, interior, their energies accumulating always at the edge of action, either finding no outlet into reality, or ones too small for the force that warps them.
What happens to a passion that, though it fuels art, remains in some essential human sense abstract, never altogether attaching itself to any one person, any one time or token of the perishable earth? Does art, at least in some instances, and for some artists, demand this, that they always feel most intensely the life they’ve failed to feel? Is it worth it? The will, at least in its higher manifestations, is not a capacity that humans have learned to exercise with much precision. Always there are secondary casualties, collateral damages inflicted upon whoever happens to be in the way. To love is to really be in the way.
If you one day find that you are living outside of your life, that whatever activity you thought was life is in fact a defense against it, or a crowding out of it, or just somehow misses it, you might work hard to retain some faith in the years that suddenly seem to have happened without you. You might, like Milton, give yourself over to some epic work in which you find a coherence and control that eluded you in life. You might, like me, begin recounting vaguely exotic anecdotes to account for a time when you were so utterly unconscious you may as well have been living in Dubuque—might present them in such a way that your real subject remains largely in the shadows they cast. You might find that the hardest things to let go are those you never really took hold of in the first place.
Hold Everything Dear
as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey
as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind
as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks
as the leaves of the hedge store the light
that the moment thought it had lost
as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air
as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark
hold everything dear
the calligraphy of birds across the morning
the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth
one step ahead of time
the broken teeth of tribes and their long place
steppe-scattered and together
clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug
carrying itself towards us through the soil
the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot
but given as a torch
hold everything dear
the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them
the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching
the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days
as it sinks to become what it loves
memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed
the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door
the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world
the people in the room the people in the street the people
hold everything dear
So begins John Berger‘s book of the same name, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. Written about a post 9/11 world, these essays are very different from the exquisitely written books about art and life that most of us have come to know during Berger’s long career—his canonical Ways of Seeing as well as The Shape of a Pocket, About Looking and Sense of Sight. This book is full of discouragement and frustration with the state of the world and in particular Middle Eastern politics, and Berger doesn’t mince or soft pedal his views. This wasn’t an easy book for me to read.
But I am reminded of what he wrote in Ways of Seeing over 40 years ago: “Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.” That is evident in these essays.
But as for the poem, that’s a keeper.
In David Levi Strauss’ book, From Head to Hand, he begins the chapter on sculptor Donald Lipski with three quotes and this paragraph:
The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.
–The Blind Man (1917)
Why not look at the constellation of things that surround us every day? That is the combinatory art. Nothing should be left out. Everything has to undergo the test of how it can live in this relatedness.
–Frederick Sommer, The Constellations That Surround Us (1992)
Art supposes that beauty is not an exception—is not in despite of—but is the basis for an order.
–John Berger, “The White Bird” (1985)
From the viewpoint of art for art’s sake, aesthetic decisions are continually being contaminated by the things of this world. In Donald Lipski’s art, this process is not merely tolerated, but celebrated. In fact, this contamination—resulting from the contact and mixture of disparate substances and materials—defines the method and has come to be the principal subject of Lipski’s art.
A great collection of quotes, and a topic that has many more levels to it than just Lipski’s eclectic work. Sommer’s encouragement to look at and work with the “constellation of things” and to take a “combinatory” approach to art making speaks to me as a painter as well. Clearly my approach is a much more subtle implementation, often operating most powerfully at the inchoate level of intent. But the steady accretion of non traditional materials into my work has been my own painterly way of coming into relationship with the constellation of things that exist in my world.
I also found this passage about Lipski and his relationship to minimalism provocative:
Lipski’s art is particularly well suited to contemporary postindustrial society, a society of plethoric overproduction, wealth, and waste. But his art is not plethoric. It is, rather, remarkably light on its feet, transforming glut into spare elegance. The work clearly responds more to minimalism than to pop, but with a twist…David Rubin wrote: “Although minimalism was born of a disdain for metaphor and materials with associative value, Lipski has brought new life to is most cherished principles. In subjectifying minimalism, altering it as he does objects, Lipski has effectively transformed it from an art of the few into an art for the many.
My favorite Lipski is his 1998 installation for Grand Central, Sirshasana. A huge artificial olive tree, it hung upside down. The roots were covered in gold leaf and its branches were draped with 5,000 Swarovski crystals. Named after a head down yoga position, the tree felt ethereal and provocative—its roots reaching heavenward and its branches drawing down to the earth. Much can be drawn from that orientation, and Strauss quotes the 13th century Zohar: “The Tree of Life extends from above downwards, and is the sun which illuminates us all.”
This work feels loaded, lush and full of light.
Untitled (Seven Mountains) by Ursula von Rydingsvard (Photo by Ben Aqua)
In the introduction to David Levi Strauss‘ book From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual, he points out that “in an increasingly mediated world, one of the most radical things artists can do is to use their hands.” He goes on to quote Leo Steinberg: “The eye is a part of the mind.”
This point of view is right in line with my operative ethos for art as defined by Robert Smith in her review a few years back of what is missing in too many of the museum shows she was seeing: Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. So the reference in Strauss’ title to the head and the hand is of elemental importance to my view of art making.
This small book has been on my nightstand for nearly a year. The writing has a compact denseness that I love. You only need to read a line or two at the end of the day to be dropped into that meditative state before sleeping. Strauss offers his wisdom and insights on a number of artists and writers who are among my personal favorites: Joseph Beuys, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Nancy Spero, Cecilia Vicuña. I’ll share a few passages from the book over the next few posts.
Here is a sampling from his chapter on Ursula von Rydingsvard, “Sculpture and Sanctuary”:
Rydingsvard’s relation to the symbolic is effected by her relation to nature. She has often spoken in interviews of her abhorrence of competing with or imitating nature. She eschews mimesis in favor of reciprocity, aiming to get the objects she makes “to echo things that nature might say but doesn’t.” Her organicism is always a mediated organicism, arising from the religious imagination as defined by W. S. Piero: “The religious imagination is a respondent, form-making act of consciousness, back toward and into that which it believes has shaped it—the force of otherness. It replies to the givenness of existence by reshaping the forms of nature into the forms of work.”
My review of Rydingsvard’s show at the de Cordova Museum last year inter alia can be read here.
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.
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.
Maybe it happens to you like this: unexpected events and encounters often come in multiples. It’s as if random events are actually traveling through our lives in a wad. How many times has someone come to mind who I haven’t seen in years and then they suddenly appear at a party or on the street? Many.
That rhythm of random repetition showed up for me again this last week. I just finished reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir about New York City in the 1970s as seen from the high velocity, celebrity-studded perspective of both Smith and her lover/friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. I lived in New York City at the same time and remember Smith’s extraordinary performances at CBGB that catapulted her into fame. The world she describes, centered around the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, was very far from my ragtag circle of friends living in unwieldy lofts on the Lower East Side. I wasn’t running into the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso on my rides on the F train or walks through Chinatown. But reading her words brought those days back to mind, back to a Manhattan and a me that are long gone. Woody Allen’s somewhat superficial but irresistably enjoyable film, Midnight in Paris, was a paean to our private variations of the moveable feast.
Manhattan in the 1970s was one of my moveable feasts, but so was the year I spent in France when I was 18 years old. And those halcyon days came flooding back when I recently visited my art teacher from that year I lived abroad. He is the reason I changed my life path and decided to spend it making art, and now he lives in the hills above Salt Lake City. His secluded Italianate villa is filled with artifacts ranging from Renaissance paintings to dinosaur bones. Stepping into his cloistered Miss Havisham world is already an invitation to leave life as we know it, but even more so when I discovered he had unearthed the photos from that long ago time in France—black and whites that capture a me and a France that, like Manhattan in the 70s, no longer exists.
Who I was back then is as elusive as a dream image, and it is just as hard to share it meaningfully with anyone else. But reconnecting with these two periods in my life, in close succession, has brought all sorts of forgotten energies to the surface. Asking those old selves to unveil their forgotten secrets is not as easy as a car that comes round for you at midnight on a Paris street, but I’ll take these trips back however they come.
The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation. I left Mephistopheles, the angels, and the remnants of our handmade world, saying, I choose Earth.
—Patti Smith, from Just Kids
I came of age in New York City about the time Patti Smith was catapulted into notoriety and fame in the 1970s. A skinny young woman whose proto-grunge, anti-glam stance was the perfect compliment to her deeply personal, unvarnished music, Smith’s music and presence was a straight hit to my heart. She was a frequent downtown presence back then, but she never seemed to be tainted by the disabling toxicity of celebritism. She has been a special kind of hero for me all these years.
I finally found the time to begin reading her much lauded book (winner of the National Book Award last year) when I fell upon the perfect blog post to accompany my read. Luke Storms, one of my favorite online cohorts, writes the site Intense City. His thinking is eclectic, unexpected, honest, thoughtfully structured, well informed and yet humble (a quality I admire more than most.) So if Smith’s memoir is just one of many interests for you, stop in and spend some time. WWTR—well worth the read.