The Therme Vals, by Peter Zumthor (Photo: ArchNow!)

Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times piece about the architect Peter Zumthor is full of nuggets worth keeping on hand, easily accessible. I first began paying attention to Zumthor after visiting his Kolumba museum in Cologne. It was such an unexpected blend of old and new (Zumthor incorporated the ruins of a Gothic church as well as a chapel built on the site after World War II) in a way that both honored the past and melded it with the future. And the spaces were unexpected and yet organic. Zumthor is not tricky, clever, ironic or manipulative, all important qualities in art as well as life IMHO. Architectural critic Peter Rüedi pointed out that some may mistake Zumthor as an ascetic. He is instead an “essentialist of the sensual.”

I like Kimmelman’s comparison of Zumthor with some of the high visibility starchitects we read about constantly:

As the designer of some of the subtlest and most admired buildings of the last quarter-century, Zumthor has hardly been toiling in obscurity. But he has eschewed the flamboyant, billboard-on-the-skyline, globe-trotting celebrity persona, setting himself apart from, and in his own mind clearly somewhat above, some of his more famous colleagues. His works, even from the most superficial perspective, differ from Frank Gehry’s or Zaha Hadid’s or Jean Nouvel’s or Norman Foster’s, for starters, because they are not flashy: they often don’t grab you at all at first glance, being conceived from the inside out, usually over many painstaking years. Moreover, because Zumthor runs a small office and doesn’t often delegate even the choice of a door handle, he hasn’t taken on many projects, and most of the ones he has completed aren’t very big.

And later, this passage:

I’ve heard Zumthor’s detractors respond to this sort of argument by saying he’s a Swiss clockmaker. They stress that he thrives in a small pond but that the rough-and-tumble of global-scaled 21st-century projects demands a more flexible and grander vision. It is true that his projects are not enormous; there is an intimacy to his work. At places like Bregenz or the Bruder Klaus chapel, visitors respond not just to how his buildings look but also to their sounds, smells, to the light as it changes around them, even to the feel of the walls and floors — to what Zumthor has described as the “beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well.”

Zumthor is easy to compare with Louis Kahn and for good reason. His artistic proclivities and perfectionistic style sound familiar for those of us who are Kahn fans. He talks about being influenced by the work of sculptors Richard Serra, Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer, and he also references Joseph Beuys. “With Beuys,” Zumthor explained, “my interest has had to do with the mythology and sensuousness of his materials, the importance of his personal life in his art. He was looking at objects with history, with a past.”

The description and photos of Zumthor’s Vals spa hotel and baths are evocative and memorable. “The spa invests ordinary leisure-time bathing with a sacramental gravity. It lends existential weight to even the simplest, most banal rituals — walking from room to room, looking out a window, reclining on a bench, gazing up at the sky or hearing the splash of water and the echo of footsteps. Bathers move like supplicants through wet stone chapels,” writes Kimmelman. “Vals is not about an outside object,” says Zumthor. “It’s not about lap pools and slides and gadgets. It is about what happens inside, the bathing, oriented toward the ritual, as if in the Orient. It’s about water and stone and light and sound and shadow.”

A few more phrases from Zumthor that are worth pondering:

I think the chance of finding beauty is higher if you don’t work on it directly. Beauty in architecture is driven by practicality. This is what you learn from studying the old townscapes of the Swiss farmers. If you do what you should, then at the end there is something, which you can’t explain maybe, but if you are lucky, it has to do with life.

Solid wood has almost disappeared as too expensive, complicated and old-fashioned. I reintroduced it as a construction method here because it feels good to be with, to be in. You feel a certain way in a glass or concrete or limestone building. It has an effect on your skin — the same with plywood or veneer, or solid timber. Wood doesn’t steal energy from your body the way glass and concrete steal heat. When it’s hot, a wood house feels cooler than a concrete one, and when it’s cold, the other way around. So I preserved the wood-beam construction because of what it can do for your body.

I believe in the spiritual value of art, as long as it’s not exclusive. It is the same with architecture.


Nee Nej 2, from a new series of paintings I worked on this winter

I’ve posted this poem here already, several years ago. It resurfaced in me this morning and it feels like a perfect fit for the mood of my mind and spirit, heavy with the events of the last week. But that undeniable connection happens frequently for me with William Stafford’s words since my love of his work runs deep. I hope it speaks to you too.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

–William Stafford

Wolgang Laib and Milkstone

The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art is like the pocket-sized Shinto shrines that can be found all over Tokyo—an oasis of calm in a complicated and complexifying urban landscape. I have been a member since it opened in 2004 and spend time there on almost every trip to New York.

The current exhibit, Grain of Emptiness, features contemporary artists who have been impacted by concepts that we equate with Buddhism such as the void, the fleeting nature of life, the power of ritual. The works by these artists—Sanford Biggers, Theaster Gates, Atta Kim, Wolfgang Laib, and Charmion von Wiegand—are quiet, navigating that space between maker and viewer with dignity and mutual respect. The work ranges from installation to video to painting. An accompanying lecture series that happened over the fall and winter was reason to make me wish I lived in New York City again. The speakers included several from my list of favorites—Bill Viola, Wolgang Laib, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Patsy Rodenburg, Charles Renfro, among others.

Laib’s work has been one I have followed for a long time, and his installations of plates of rice and marble stones that are topped off with milk always move me to some place still in me. The images by Atta Kim are extraordinary as well.

Is it possible to describe what these works have in common or are trying to achieve? Hard to do. Apropos to the exhibit is a passage from the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (The Heart Sutra):

Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form:
emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness;
whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form.

And from the catalog preface by Martin Brauen:

Although, or just because, emptiness is such a central idea in Buddhism, approaching this Buddhist principle is hard for several reasons: first, because emptiness evades definition, it resists description or analysis. Emptiness is beyond conceptuality. It is nonconceptuality par excellence. Second, in the West emptiness tends to be equated with nothingness, a way of interpretation that can scarcely stand up to more precise examination but is nevertheless widespread. And third, even within Buddhism emptiness is a concept that is discussed and described in a variety of ways, which makes clarification more difficult.

One of my favorite phrases is from Wolgang Laib: “The ephemeral is eternal.”

So in the spirit of that ekphrastic urge to use poetry to describe art, here’s Alice Fulton’s contribution to the mystery.

Mahamudra Elegy

Then emptiness grew more empty,
the scent of scentlessness.
How could it be?
When emptiness is that which can’t be

emptied any more, neither malicious nor
a state that welcomes us
with munificent alohas.
I fingered it like an incision, fondled it

like a rosary of thorns, thinking
if every instant holds
the maximum abridged, tranquillity must be
somewhere in the mix. So concentrate.

A live volcano is the recommended site
for certain meditations. Think time
exists because a dropped glass
breaks and here we are existing,

witnessing the ornaments,
decorative yet dear. Mundanities
that dazzling seem extruded by a star.
Stellifactions. Mahamudra.

Words to conjure with. The great
seal, great gesture, the mahamudra
holds snowflakes to their certitudes of lace.
While fire thinks fire

is what everything aspires to, time thinks
through its helpless locks: its ambergris
flocked with a sailor’s buttons, its mud wasp
buzzing like a mini vac. Every solid is a clock.

–Alice Fulton

This poem appeared in the Atlantic and came to me by way of Carl Belz.

George Wingate, friend and artist, soaks in the Pat Steirs at Cheim & Read

After several recent trips to Chelsea’s ghetto of galleries that have felt empty and unsatisfying, my visit this past weekend offered up some moments worth remembering. People were everywhere, enjoying a Saturday without rain, snow or blistering cold. The High Line was a solid wave of walkers from 20th Street on down, the galleries and streets of Chelsea full of art stalkers, myself included.

The Pat Steir show at Cheim & Read is just plain fabulous. These immense paintings (she is 70, and there is no shortage of bravado and muscularity in Ms. Steir) capture an exquisite edge between planned and chance, flow and control, intention and occurrence. The metallic paints used in this series create an understated shimmer, playing the surface while still pulling you in. Loved these works.

Close up views of two of Pat Steir’s exquisite new paintings

A selection of Joan Mitchell pieces from the 50’s are on display at Lennon Weinberg. Many of these came out of her studio and from galleries after she passed away, so many of these works are being seen for the first time.

I can always spend time and learn from Mitchell’s work. Some of these are as compelling as her later and more prominently known work. And a nice catalog as well.

Joan Mitchell’s work in the 50’s

New series from North Carolina painter Herb Jackson, “Firestorm in the Teahouse”, on display at Claire Oliver. These works are pushing in new directions of texture, palette and surface. Some lovely moments in this show.

Herb Jackson

Close up on Jackson surface: Lots going on

The ubiquitous Pace Gallery Empire (how many locations now? 100?) is featuring Tara Donovan at two of them. Stripped of the painterly delights that come from rich color and viscous materiality, her work still offers up something satisfying for me.

Donovan, imaging with nails

Donovan close up

José Parlá is having his first solo show at Bryce Wolkowitz. Lyrical but gritty, crossing over to a zone that exists between calligraphy and urban graffiti, the works are engaging, energetic, compelling. One to watch.

Two large scale works by José Parlá

Close up of painting by Parlá

And one more to praise, this from outside the realms of Chelsea: Good friend Filiz Emma Soyak is on display at Giacobetti Paul Gallery in DUMBO. Filiz’s new work is full of remembrances from a life lived on several continents. “My paintings are my stories.” And indeed they speak evocatively and movingly. Well done Filiz.

Barbados no Arashi I, by Filiz Emma Soyak (image courtesy of Giacobetti Paul)

Linda Durham (Photo: New Mexican)

On a sad note: Linda Durham Gallery in Santa Fe will be closing this month after 33 years.

I have admired Linda’s bravado and devotion to her artists and her gallery. I’m sorry to see her move on.

In an interview with Linda that appeared in the Santa Fe Reporter, she had this to say about her decision:

I’m worried about the world. Not just the artists or myself or our community, I’m worried about what’s going on in the world. I don’t represent that many artists on a full-time basis, and the ones I do have a few things in common: They’re brilliant, they’re resourceful and, of course, they’re really good artists, I think. So good things will happen for them. But I think the art world has changed a lot in the last few years, so it’s not what it used to be. The gallery used to be a vehicle for communication, and I love what I’ve learned from artists, what I’ve learned about art, what I’ve learned from people who love art and artists, and the conversation about the importance of art in culture and in life has been central to the gallery. But that’s changed a little bit.

I feel that art is a really, really important component of a good life and important to society. I think real artists are at the vanguard of society and that we learn about ourselves as a culture through art. How do we know cultures of the past? From the architecture and the sculpture and the music and poetry and paintings that remain. What is art teaching us now, and what will the future know about us and our culture and our time from the art that we’re producing? What I’ve noticed is that it’s gotten to be really chic to be involved in the arts. It’s attracting a wider and wider array of people, some whose passion for what they do is deep and profound, and some for whom it’s a whim and a game. And that goes for the art that’s being made, the people who are displaying or showing the art, and the people who are collecting it. It’s different than it was even 20 years ago. It used to be that one became an artist because one had passion for it. And people opened galleries out of love and respect for the work. And people collected for the same reasons.

We’ve lost, as a general group, lost the interest, willingness, ability to slow down and look at something and let it talk. There’s celebrity art, there’s expensive art that makes people salivate—some people—because of its price, because of its fame. Now, anyone can become an artist and anyone can open a gallery and anyone can be a collector. When I started, I didn’t know much, but I spent a lot of time asking, learning, looking, making mistakes and honing a point of view. I don’t think you can have a point of view about art without looking at a lot of art. And I don’t think you can look at a lot of art with a few visits to The Met or the Guggenheim or by taking one class in college.

There is a lot of heart in these words. Good luck to Linda in whatever form her art loving continues.

Grand master for a lifetime: Henri Matisse, photographed by Man Ray

The nautre of art making over the lifetime has been a recurring theme for me these last few months. Spurred in many ways by the publication of Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, by Nicholas Delbanco (which wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped), my curiosity about what makes an artist able to continue working has only deepened. Answers are few as to why some continue on and others do not, but the question is a potent one.

Here are a few highlights from Delbanco’s book:

Why should it seem so difficult to substitute endurance for enthusiasm, to temper ambition with artistry;what are, in Cyril Connolly’s fine phrase, the “enemies of promise” that keep us from achieving the best work at the end?

To know, I mean truly know—as might a basketball player or ballerina—that the best is behind you is to turn to drink or diterhing or to an oven or gun. A few modest and decorous authors—think of E. M. Forster and Eudora Welty—withdraw into silence and declare at a certain point in their career, Enough’s enough. But most of us go on and on, unable or unwilling to break a lifetime’s habit of wrangling with language, and happy to be allowed, even encouraged, to do so. Most of us, when asked which book has been our favorite, will answer (hopefully, wishfully, truthfully), “The next.”

For a group of ceaseless strivers (often miserable, always doubt-hounded as they search) the motto is Cezanne’s: “I seek in painting.” Whereas Picasso announced, “I don’t seek; I find.”

Of the aging artists, Donald Hall has this to say: When I saw Moore the year he turned eighty, I asked him, in a jocular manner I hope, to tell me the secret of life. Without jocularity he answered that the secret was to devote yourself entirely to one end, to one goal, and to work every day toward this goal, to put all your energy and imagination into the one endeavor. The only necessity was that this goal by unattainable.”

As Anthony Storr observes, in “Solitude: A Return to Self”:

One of the most interesting features of any creative person’s work is how it changes over time. No highly creative person is ever satisfied with what he has done. Often indeed, after completing a project, he experiences a period of depression from which he is only relieved by embarking on the next piece of work. It seems to me that the capacity to create provides an irreplaceable opportunity for personal development in isolation. Most of us develop and mature primarily through interaction with others. Our passage through life is defined by our roles relative to others; as child, adolescent, spouse, parent, and grandparent. The artist or philosopher is able to mature primarily on his own. His passage through life is defined by the changing nature and increasing maturity of his work, rather than his relationships with others.

The last quote, from Storr’s book, is a rich one. It is also right in keeping with my personal predilection for hermitizing, for being defined more by my work than anything else. And it was provocative enough to get me to read Storr’s book next.

Everyone needs a Maureen Doallas in their lives. Maureen filters the world of art and poetry like a baleine whale combs the sea for krill. Her latest find is a show at Winston Watcher in Seattle by mosaic artist Ann Gardner.

As described by the gallery, Gardner is known for “unique sculptures that use hand cut, tinted and etched glass to create elegant mosaic-covered forms that challenge the physical boundaries of the medium.” These forms are exquisitely simple, beguiling and visually luxurious.

And Gardner’s statements about her work speak to concerns that are conversant with my own:

My intention is to make work of presence and harmony from the intersection of three very simple elements: light, shape and color. When these elements play with the surface, I want them to reveal a complexity that changes as the day passes over the work.

Whether I create a sculpture for a private or public commission, I am interested in the same issues: I want my work to elicit an emotional response, such as celebration, quietness or calm, and facilitate a connection to that response for the viewer.

Yesterday I posted about sculptor Bill Walton. Today it is Ann Gardner. And given that things often happen in threes, I’m ready for my third to appear. It’s like a 3D meteor shower.

(All images courtesy of Winston Wachter Gallery)

Installation view

Show announcement
(Photos: Fleisher/Ollman Gallery)

I spent the weekend in and near Philadelphia, a city I have always enjoyed visiting*. It has much to recommend it—a great museum, proximity to the Barnes Foundation (soon to be housed within its own city limits, a fraught topic I’d rather not get in to at this point in time), lots of history, architectural breadth, a friendly (it’s all relative of course) community of art galleries, Louie Kahn’s former offices (I’ve made the pilgrimage) and the best, bar none, gelato in all the world at Capogiro’s. (BTW, the research was exhaustive, international in scope and personally supervised. I’m sorry but nothing in Italy has excelled this exceptional New World variant.)

The highlight of this trip, expertly choreographed by friend and artist Pam Farrell, was seeing a show of work by Bill Walton at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. When I walked in to the exhibit, the first thing that came to mind was Richard Tuttle’s stripped and elemental sensibilities. But while Walton and Tuttle may be drinking from the same stream, Walton’s work does not feel derivative or like second hand Tuttles. Walton’s poetic center is defined and unique, and these simplified forms seem to emerge from a place of deep connection, authenticity and affection. There is a primal and personal sense of the sacred about these assemblages that made me want to be silent when I was in the exhibit. Silent and a bit teary.

At first I thought my response was because Walton, a well known artist in the Philadelphia area, had just passed away last year. But these pieces are more than a momento mori. Each one feels like its own private universe, with its own peculiar set of laws and gravitations.They are masterful and yet understated, small in stature but large in their power of presence.

A small monograph of Walton’s work is available for sale at the gallery. It was published prior to the show, in 2006, in conjunction with the Lois Fernley Award. In an essay in the monograph written by Richard Torchia, the following story about Walton is told:

When asked about his refusal to assign his works to particular years, he explains that it is not a strategy to mystify but, rather, a form of honesty. it comes from a reluctance to recognize any work of his as ever being one hundred percent complete, along with a desire “to let things sit for a while and vintage a bit.” It is not that works once resolved remain “in progress” but that the are never not “in process.”

That kind of candor is artist speak I can resonate with. His tone is unpretentious, thoughtful, humble. I would have loved to have known him.


* Previous postings on art in Philadelphia:

Natalie Alper at Seraphin Gallery
Taiga at the Philadelphia Museum

“Everything I like about the art experience” is best expressed by this image of Dave basking in the Diebenkorns at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center

The Daily Beast writing about the Armory Show currently running in New York:

A Sam’s Club for Art?

Think of everything you like about the art experience: That it is meditative, complex, subtle, challenging; that it’s a refuge from the superficial, the pedestrian, the mercantile. The Armory art fair that opened this week in New York, like any other art fair, represents the opposite of all that. It is to a museum visit what Sam’s Club is to Goumanyat. The only thing it is good for is shopping.

This short piece was quite heartening to me. The words chosen to describe the art experience (from the Daily Beast no less) are all my kind of words—“meditative, complex, subtle, challenging; that it’s a refuge from the superficial, the pedestrian, the mercantile.”

More of that, please.

Petroglyph at Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque New Mexico

Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it.
What appears bad manners, an ill temper
or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears
have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

–Miller Williams

My friend Jill includes a carefully chosen poem at the bottom of her emails. This one arrived this week, and its message is timely. After being the in the splendid isolation of the desert landscape of New Mexico, the vitriol of political rhetoric sounds particularly harsh and personal. I keep thinking about the question Laurie Anderson asked John Cage: Is life getting worse or is it getting better? His answer is an ongoing comfort to me, particularly at times like these: “Of course it is getting better. Laurie. It’s just that it is happening so slowly.”

In talking about Miller Williams’ poetry, Leon Stokesbury refers to the central paradox of his work, that “humankind is compelled to seek what is true and meaningful about existence and the universe, yet has only observation and reason as aids.” To which I answer, of course we have more aids than those two. But we don’t know how to describe what they are or how to employ them powerfully. Part of being a painter for me is to seek out those other aids, and the seeking often takes place in that zone beyond language. But it is happening. So. Slowly.