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Zaha Hadid, in her home. Now that’s what flamboyant looks like! (Photo: Miles Aldridge)

Two weeks ago I read the article written by John Seabrook for The New Yorker about architect Zaha Hadid. Up until now I’ve watched her international success with a curiosity and respect, but with a certain detachment. Her work doesn’t exhibit the aesthetic sensibilities that are more in line with my own—Shiguri Ban, Kenzo Tange, Steven Holl, Elizabeth Scofidio, Rem Koolhaas, to name a few.

But Seabrook made Hadid enchanting to me. As is often the case with New Yorker profiles, eyes have been opened at the back of my head and I’m looking at things very differently.

For example, this passage captures some of that magic:

The twisty geometry of an ordinary potato chip, to say nothing of the curves in modern cars and phones,is a reminder of how few buildings look as if they belonged in the digital world. Hadid is devoted to helping architecture catch up. In her buildings, walls are never quite vertical, floors seldom remain flat for long, and the twain meet not in ninety-degree angles but, rather, in the kinds of curves one finds in skateboard parks. (“There are three hundred and fifty-nine other degrees,” Hadid likes to say. “Why limit yourself to one?”) Few repeating forms—columns, windows, doorframes—guide you through her spaces, which may be why some people, on entering a Zaha Hadid building for the first time, are reminded of childhood experiences in large structures: You’re disoriented. You can’t say, “I’ll be in the back,” because there is no back. There’s no front, either.

Thus the title of the article: The Abstractionist: Zaha Hadid’s unfettered invention.

The part of Hadid’s story that is most compelling to me has to do with her early years at the Architectural Association, the oldest independent school of architecture in the U.K. While still a student she encountered painter Kazimir Malevich’s 1926 manifesto, “The Non-Objective World.” In that document Malevich claimed that “the new art of Suprematism, which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling, will become a new architecture: it will transfer those forms from the surface of canvas to space.” Malevich produced abstract models for buildings that he referred to as “architektons” but was unable to pursue his ideas once Stalinism determined that abstract art was bourgeois and banned from exhibition.

But Hadid saw something in Malevich’s architektons, something no one else had seen before, and she made it her project to complete his work. In other words, she wanted to create a truly abstract building.

In the beginning, not many understood what she was doing. But she was relentless, working night and day, until “the two dimensional solids in the Malevich paintings started to give way, and they began floating like transparent volumes, layered in space.”

Soon others began to get was she was doing. She ended up winning the Diploma Prize for her portfolio which contained the design for a fourteen-story hotel. Although never built, she described the project this way: “The structure’s fourteen levels systematically adhere to the tektonik, turning all conceivable constraints into new possibilities for space.”

According to one critic, Aaron Betsky, this was a watershed piece of work:

You can’t underestimate the impact that her project had. It really was one of those very rare moments when a fissure opens up in architecture, and a different way of seeing emerges. We no longer have to be bound by gravity. We don’t have to accept reality—she will unfold her own reality.

There is something gnawing at me about this story, this relentless drive to get to the bottom of something. Maybe that gnawing sense I am feeling is similar to the way Hadid just had to dig into Malevich’s Supremacist manifesto, forcefully getting it to make sense for her, her work, her vision. It is an ancient archetype, one that is common in most cultural traditions. In Western culture we have Noah and the Ark and other mad visionaries who are misunderstood but end up breaking through what everyone else imagined was impenetrable.

One of my friend recently told me of a rich and deeply meaningful dream image. The phrase she used was clear cement. She was very insistent that the substance was not lucite, glass bricks or any of the other transparent building material. It was cement, she said, and it was clear.

Somehow that feels like a perfect metaphor for Hadid’s breakthrough, and one that I am still chewing on with satisfaction, curiosity and awe.

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Gustave Flaubert

Thanks to top notch blogger Judith H. Dobrzynski (Real Clear Arts) for finding a fascinating article about Flaubert in Prospect Magazine.

I needed this, especially today. To read about how arduously Flaubert reworked Madame Bovary (and one would assume, everything he produced) helped eliminate some of the stress and discomfort with a very long and very slow moving project of completing work for my show next month.

Efficiency just isn’t part of my approach to creativity, and it clearly wasn’t for Flaubert either. I should be bold and proud enough to claim my membership in the “Rework, and rework again” tribe. It’s a big club, to be sure.

Now if only that came with a union card that guaranteed the bearer the ability to produce something as brilliant as Madame Bovary

Here’s some of Dobrzynski’s overview of the original article in Prospect:

For all its drawbacks for writers, the Internet has its pluses, too. Easier research, for one. And here’s another example: Two new websites in France are putting on display, for everyone to see, just how difficult writing novels (in particular) really is and how it was done by a master. Prospect Magazine has the story, and here’s the lede:

Flaubert, said Henry James, was “the novelist’s novelist.” And perhaps because he wanted to prove to his family of sceptical doctors that writing was hard work, or perhaps because he was incapable of throwing anything away, or maybe even because he was so in awe of the mystical powers of art, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) kept all his manuscript drafts.

A unique internet literary collaboration that began in Rouen, Flaubert’s Normandy birthplace, now lays bare the innermost secrets of his anguished creative process. The 4,561 pages he frantically wrote and rewrote to become his 400-or-so-page masterpiece, Madame Bovary, have been transcribed by 130 enthusiasts from 13 countries and put online.

Flaubert’s manuscripts have been digitized, posted alongside the transcriptions at two websites: http://www.bovary.fr and flaubert.univ-rouen.fr/. It’s in French, of course, but anyone can gawk at the revisions. The Prospect article reveals plenty, too, such as:

* Flaubert wrote 52 versions of Madame Bovary’s most famous scene, wherein Emma sneaks out of her house at dawn and runs to her lover;

* He often produced 20 versions of the same page;

* He excised metaphors (“they attack me like fleas”, he said);

* He thought as he wrote, rather than plan what he would say first.

A few musings on the amazingly counter entropic gesture of pulling something into existence from what appears to be nothing…

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I have trusted to my intuition to find the subjects, and I have written intuitively. I have an idea when I start, I have a shape; but I will fully understand what I have written only after some years.

–V. S. Naipaul

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Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.

–Virginia Woolf

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All perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention.

–Rudolf Arnheim

A recent interview with the Zen koan-like and enigmatic artist Larry Poons can be read in its entirety on Robert Ayers’ excellent blog, A sky filled with Shooting Stars. Poons has a show of new work up in Chelsea, and it is quite a departure from earlier “dot” paintings.

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Larry Poons

Here is a sample of the quality of the exchange between Poons and Ayers:

Poons: Paintings are mistakes. You put a mark on a canvas, and it’s a mistake. Of course it’s a mistake, otherwise it would be wonderful, because it would be finished. But it’s not. After maybe 50 or 60,000 mistakes, you give up. Like Leonardo said, “Works of art aren’t finished, they’re abandoned.” That’s absolutely true, art is never finished. People say, “Oh, that’s a nice romantic thing to say.” But it’s not romantic. It’s like saying that physics can be finished. Real art is never finished. With applied art at least you can say, “OK. You’ve learnt this lesson.” Illustration doesn’t even get into this no-man’s land. But that’s the only place that art lives, if it’s any good.

Ayers: Can you explain that a little further?

Poons: It’s hard to explain. It’s the difference between William Butler Yeats and everybody else! You don’t know why, but holy mackerel, it’s there! You sense it. Very quickly you reach a wall of impenetrability. It’s like you’re reading words and there’s nothing there. You can’t penetrate it. And then you do – not all at once, but maybe in a week, or a year, or ten years, and when you do, when it finally pours over you, it’s just like anything else in art that you are really moved by. When stuff resonates with you, then you’ve got a Bach or a Schuman or a Brahms. You’ve got one of them.

Ayers: OK, but you’re referring to poetry and music. How does this work in painting?

Poons:When you’re painting, then you’ve got nothing to paint until there’s something there, that first mistake. But once you see something – you’ll see a flow or a shape – ­then that’s what you’re painting, and that’s where paintings come from. And you just try to make them real. And they’re real when they look like they’ve been done all at once. When something happens so that everything that I’ve been looking at in the painting becomes something else very different. All of a sudden little things are visible, things that were invisible before, and the painting doesn’t look like it has a beginning or an end. Where did Cézanne begin a painting? Where did Titian start? You can’t tell. You just don’t see it. But in paintings that don’t arrive at this “colored moment,” you can always tell.

Ayers: Yes. But if art is never finished, how can we tell whether it’s any good or not?

Poons:The art that we’re talking about is never finished. It can’t be. It isn’t in its nature. When things are finished isn’t a willful thing. Is a Mondrian finished? No. But is a [Fritz] Glarner? Yeah. That’s why a Mondrian’s better. And Mondrian or Glarner, they have no control over this. Beethoven had no control over being that good. Impossible. It wasn’t his fault he was that good. And it wasn’t Pollock’s fault that he was that wonderful. So if somebody says, “Oh, that’s good!” you can’t get a swelled head because you know that if perchance it is any good, that’s almost the way it is – it’s by chance!

I read this exchange and knew immediately what Poons was talking about. Perhaps I’m too gun shy at the idea of speaking so frankly about a process that is a bit like describing the experience of hallucinogenics to someone who hasn’t ever imbibed. Poons talks so nakedly about the inner conversations that go on, most of them with entities that are part of you and yet not part of not you. It’s a mystery, the whole thing, and I’ve been less inclined to try to embody it as openly as he does here.

So of course this delighted me.

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I’d love to see the show. It is at the Danese Gallery in New York and runs through March 14.

Thanks to Riki Moss for sending this link to me. Great find, Riki.

I find it humbling that my opinion-generating, perpetual judging machine of a mind gets called out over and over again. My assumptions become hardened into fact more rapidly than is healthy for someone who professes to have the “open mind” approach to life. I’m guilty as charged. But the one nice thing about being guilty is that sometimes there’s a happy ending (don’t read that wrong please) that leaves you with more, not less.

A few days ago I wrote about a major reassessment of my view of Shepard Fairey’s work, finding it so much more beguiling and engaging than I had previously assumed. And today I have a similar mea culpa about a writer I have mercilessly dismissed as way to clever, way too vapid and hopelessly manipulative. So on the topic of Elizabeth Gilbert, I stand corrected. I still intensely dislike her book, Eat, Pray, Love. But after listening to her TED talk (thank you Sally Reed for sending the connection my way) I will never bash her again.

Please take the 19 minutes to listen to Gilbert talk about what creativity is for her. As personal as that experience is for every maker of work, her take on how writing happens is so close to my experience that I can only shake my head in humble agreement. I find commonalities in other approaches of course, and there are some excellent TED contributions by Amy Tam, Isabelle Allende and others. But Gilbert—who knew?—is my truest kinswoman.

See it here.

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I have two poet friends, both of them extremely gifted. One, a Midwesterner, has a work ethic a lot like my own. She is focused, driven and very committed to her writing. Her poems are finely honed and crafted through successive revisions. Every word is considered carefully, and you feel that intentionality when you read her work. The crystalline power of her poetry comes from arduous labor.

The other poet friend comes from a background that I can best describe as rural/mystical. Her heritage has given her a strong connection with the earth, and that orientation is coupled with a spiritual/mystical overlay. Her pace and approach to creativity is organic, unexpected and spontaneous. A poem emerges out of her complete and whole, like an egg. She rarely edits and revises once they are written down. For her, great poetry is more dependent on her ability to be receptive to the world around her than it is to her pen. Her work is full of eclat, mystery and power.

Writing poetry and writing code seem to be far ends of the spectrum of creativity but lessons can be garnered from either of these poles. The legendary computer scientist Edsger Wybe Dijkstra has delineated approaches to writing code that ring true in poetry as well:

He compares two very different styles of programming – Mozart style of programming vs. Beethoven style of programming. When Mozart started to write, the composition was finished. He wrote manuscript in elegant handwriting in one go. Beethoven was a doubter and a struggler. He started writing before he finished the composition and then glued corrections onto the page. In one place he did it nine times.

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(More about this idea can be read on Slow Painting.)

Dijkstra’s preference is for the Mozartean approach in computer programming. His own personal habits include a daily discipline of writing his thoughts down in a very neat and orderly manner. This reflects his commitment to discipline in thought, a key requirement of Mozartean coding.

If A is like B, and B is like C…Of course I see the parallels to the creative process in painting and the visual arts. But unlike the dialectic of these two extreme alternatives, I experience it as more of a spectrum. In my studio I have breakthroughs that have been both Mozartean and Beethovenesque. Some have been of the blended variety, both working in concert with each other at various stages of a painting’s evolution. Since neither approach has demonstrated itself as particularly advantageous to me, I would have to go with e) all of the above.

But I find it rhapsodic to ride the wave that flows through consciousness between those two poles.

The ever clever and often contrarian Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in this week’s New Yorker that brings a refreshing perspective to the old saw about artistic genius residing primarily in the young.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve paid increasingly more attention to the creative breakthroughs that happen after 50. And it may surprise you to find out how many extraordinary examples of the long arc of creativity there actually are.

Gladwell highlights a few in the excerpt I have included below, but here is a sampling of some that have inspired me: Poet Amy Clampitt published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher, at the age of 63; Frank Lloyd Wright, viewed by many as a has been when he designed and built Falling Water, went on to have a breathtakingly prolific last act; Emily Kngwarreye, the most successful Aboriginal Australian artist ever, did not take up painting seriously until she was nearly 80 years old. There are many others.

I’ve been a painter since I was 19. What I love most about these accounts of later-in-life creative bursts is just further evidence of what I have experienced in my own, very personal domain: Regardless of any objective measures of progress or improvement, my work feels more authentic to me than it ever has. The ardor and drive haven’t diminished at all. Creativity and sexuality (which share the same chakra in the lower body) have been two very steady pulsars in my life. Which is, in the face of everything, very good news.

Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with “Moby-Dick.” Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat-Major at the age of twenty-one. In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old . . . I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”

A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.

I’ve been in my studio all week, doing very little in the way of art making. In my vigil of just sitting, I have pondered this question: How is it that a juicy, lush stream of creative expression can dry up and disappear overnight? What is the fragile chemistry of the brain or the body (or both) that is unkiltered by grief and suffering?

Sometimes sorrow can bring on an outpouring of expression. The number of exquisite poems birthed from the fractured shards of a broken heart is not insignificant. At the same time, I know of artists and writers who have gone lights out for years because of a deep loss.

The question feels more rhetorical than answerable. But thinking about it so much has led to research, and the exploration of its rational/scientific manifestation is a kind of palliative distraction.

Here’s an interesting extract I found in the Harvard Gazette. The work of Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Harvard and the author of The Midnight Disease, is featured in this piece:

The notion of muse as a “divine voice” or an inspiration from some ethereal source intrigues Flaherty. But for her, writing, and not being able to write when you want to, come from interactions between and changes in specific areas of the brain. The muse, in other words, is merely a matter of making the right brain connections.

The limbic system, a ring-shaped cluster of cells deep in the brain, provides the emotion push. Many nerve fibers connect it to the temporal lobes, areas behind the ears that understand words and give rise to ideas. Finally, the frontal lobe, behind your forehead, serves as a critical organizer and editor, penciling out bad phrases and ideas.

“It’s likely that writing and other creative work involve a push-pull interaction between the frontal and temporal lobes,” Flaherty speculates. If the temporal lobe activity holds sway, an aspiring scribe may turn out 600 logorrheic pages. If the temporal lobes are restrained by frontal lobe changes, the result might be pinched and timid.

Most academics regard the study of creativity as what Flaherty calls “intellectually unhygienic…”

In planning are more cerebral tests that would rely on brain scans to show actual differences in brain activity when the muse is rampant and when it hits a wall. If Flaherty’s theory is correct, brain cells in the temporal and frontal lobes should crackle with different patterns of activity.

Another technique that may influence as well as map the paths of creative activity involves passing a magnetic wand over the heads of people. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it has increased creativity when applied to the frontal lobes in preliminary studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

“Such testing should give us information, never available before, about what goes on in the brain during creativity, and what doesn’t go on when it’s blocked.” Flaherty notes…

What about people who believe they have something to say but can’t get it out? Traditional remedies like alcohol, or sticking to the task even when nothing is flowing are not going to break the block. “Repeatedly failing at the same attempt is probably a frontal lobe malfunction that makes it hard for someone to give up a faulty strategy,” Flaherty says. “This condition is best treated by taking a break.” John Keats, the English poet, treated his writer’s block by stopping and getting dressed in his best clothes.

I quite like that phrase, “intellectually unhygienic”. But I’ll take my chances.

And as for Keats’ solution, maybe I’ll give the haberdashery cure a try…

Style and substance may represent a class system. The imagination is a democracy.

–From The Triggering Town by poet and teacher Richard Hugo

I love this book. Opening it up to a random page before heading to the studio is to find a heartwarming wink, an approving nod, a much-needed nugget. It is at times like these, when undercurrents are relentless and unpredictable, that koan-like guidance can steady the vessel. And often the steadying of the vessel is as simple as lifting the hand off the rudder and being willing to just drift.

Here are a few more:

Once you have a certain amount of accumulated technique, you can forget it in the act of writing. Those moves that are naturally yours will stay with you and will come forth mysteriously when needed.

It’s flattering to be told you are better than someone else, but victories like that do not endure. What endures are your feelings about your work.

Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost…It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential.

A few words on solitude, discipline and the nature of being interrupted, by Mary Oliver:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone
rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits.
Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought
which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without
interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until
it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily
have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart–to pace, to chew pencils, to
scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from
another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that
whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing into
the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone
the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday
is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only
to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

It is this internal force–this intimate interrupter–whose tracks I would
follow. The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place,
its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that?
But that the self can interrupt the self–and does–is a dark and more
curious matter.

–From Blue Pastures

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Mary Oliver, poet