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The pleasures of making marks

In writing Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin?, John Berger has fashioned a book that is a hybrid cobbling of many facets of the his persona—memoirist, philosopher, art historian, artist, political essayist, cultural critic. Berger has a long history as a writer and a well recognized voice, so creating a category-busting book like this one is in some ways a perk that comes with his success. This is Berger doing his “the world according to me,” and the result is a quirky and very personal patchwork of stories.

In many ways Berger’s approach is more blog-like than it is book-like. The reader is invited to roam through Berger’s life and insights without the artifice of a recognizable template or format. Some parts are better than others, but there is much to recommend this unexpected blending of Bergerian insights and ideas.

(Note: Another very successful example of this wide angle viewing is Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting which I wrote about here.)

The fundamental armature of Bento’s Sketchbook is the writings of Spinoza. The Bento of the title, Spinoza spent most of his life—when he wasn’t working as a lens grinder—contesting Descartes’ mind/body duality. And sketching. And in spite of his refusal to publish his works during his lifetime, Spinoza’s writings survived (and ended up playing an influential role in bringing about the Enlightenment.) His sketchbook(s) however did not.

Berger steps in as if to offer himself as a proxy for Bento’s lost visualizations by assembling sketches from his everyday life. In the words of Colin McCabe: “What [Berger] is trying to do is produce an equivalent, in pen and ink, of Spinoza’s attempt to join the particular with the universal. It is from the mundane details of daily life that Berger creates an image of the world.”

In an interview with Berger in the Paris Review, he described his own intentions for this book:

I never really thought of myself as an art critic. I mean, I wrote a lot about art, particularly visual art, but my approach was—how to put it? The primary thing wasn’t to say whether a work was good or bad; it was rather to look and try to discover the stories within it. There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political. For me, Bento’s Sketchbook, though it’s about drawing and flowers and Velasquez, among other things, is actually a political book. It’s an attempt to look at the world today and to try to face up to both the hope and despair that millions of people live with. In some very small and personal way, that’s what I wanted to address with this book.

Spinoza gets embedded in the warp and woof of Berger’s personal encounters and stories. In an unexpected turn, those 17th century passages offer up a more optimistic view than Berger’s harsher personal sense of a world gone wrong, one that is neither fair nor hopeful.

But from time to time Berger steps away from the world’s troubles and contemplates the simple act of drawing. It is at those moments that he is at his most expansive.

When I’m drawing—and here drawing is very different from writing or reasoning—I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digestion or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will. This impression is exaggerated, but the practice or pursuit of drawing touches, or is touched by, something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning.

Thanks to the recent work of neurobiologists like Antonio Demasio, it’s now known that the messages which pass from cell to cell in a living body do so in the forms of charts and maps. They are spatial arrangements. They have a geometry.

It is through these ‘maps’ that the body communicates with the brain and the brain with the body. And these messages constitute the basis of the mind, which is the creature of both body and brain, as you believed and foresaw. In the act of drawing there’s perhaps an obscure memory of such map-reading.

As Damasio put it: ‘The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images generated by the brain’s map-making abilities.’

Drawing is anyway an exercise in orientation and as such may be compared with other processes of orientation which take place in nature.

When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells…

Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself…

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisibile to its incalculable destination.

The freeform (non)format of Bento’s Sketchbook is appealing on many levels. But may I confess to a wandering eye? While reading Berger’s book I kept fantasizing about how much I would love to see a version of this from some of my most thoughtful artist friends. Berger is first and foremost a writer, and his drawings are uneven at best. A more gifted hand could shift the balance to equal parts words and images. Hey there Altoon Sultan, George Wingate, Miriam Louisa Simons, Sally Reed, Tim Rice, Rachael Eastman, Riki Moss, Holly Downing, Elizabeth Mead, Luke Storms, Holly Friesen, Walt Pascoe, Pam Farrell, Paula Overbay, Nancy Natale, Lynette Haggard, Tamar Zinn, Filiz Soyak, Ramah Commanday, Amani Ansari—something to consider?


Ludwig Wittgenstein

Two recently encountered passages have provoked my thoughts about the power—and what may be a slow decline in—visual thinking. Ray Monk‘s article in the New Statesman, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking, points to Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s unique visual orientation. (He is compared with his fellow philosopher Bertrand Russell who, much to his own frustration, was “hopeless at visualising and was more or less indifferent to the visual arts. His mental life seemed almost entirely made up of words rather than images.”) But not so with Wittgenstein.

“Thinking in pictures,” Sigmund Freud once wrote, “stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.” There is, in other words, something primordial, something foundational, about thinking visually…

For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture…

It was fundamental to Wittgenstein’s thinking…that not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words. In the Tractatus, this appears as the distinction between what can be said and what has to be shown. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” runs the famed last sentence of the book but, as Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important…

“Don’t think, look!” Wittgenstein urges…Thus, at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he calls “the understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’ ”. Here “seeing” is meant not metaphorically, but literally.

In a similar vein, this admonition on the importance of drawing is from architect Michael Graves in his recent opinion in the New York Times, Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing.

As I work with my computer-savvy students and staff today, I notice that something is lost when they draw only on the computer. It is analogous to hearing the words of a novel read aloud, when reading them on paper allows us to daydream a little, to make associations beyond the literal sentences on the page. Similarly, drawing by hand stimulates the imagination and allows us to speculate about ideas, a good sign that we’re truly alive.

Take out your pencils people. Daydream, associate, imagine, speculate.

Pat Steir, The Austria Group, No 2 (Photo: risd Museum)

Drawing Out of Line features 40 years of work by Pat Steir and is currently on view at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art. The range of expression captured in the show speaks to Steir’s fierce exploration through her force of nature mind and eye—the ambitious and larger than life renderings of Renaissance-inspired eyes, noses and lips that fill a cavernous entry space floor to ceiling, works on paper that blend text and image, and gravitational “waterfall” paintings/drawings that are the embodiment of fluid while also preserving an essential muscularity. In all of these permutations, the hand and an expressive necessity are very apparent (to harken back to Roberta Smith’s memorable line*).


Shahzia Sikander

Also on exhibit: The Primacy of Paper featuring works from the collection. Most of the pieces in this small show are intimate and enticing. Particular standouts for me were works by Shahzia Sikander, John Morris, Kathy Prendergast, Edda Renouf and Howardena Pindell.


George Bellows

Not to be missed in the permanent collection: The most gorgeous George Bellows I’ve ever seen. The tonality of this painting—a view of the Hudson River from where the Westside Highway is now located—is a pitch-perfect homage to the gray light of a rainy day. This is unlike any of the Ashcan-style paintings by Bellows more commonly seen.

*Roberta Smith in her critique of recent museum shows in New York Times: “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

Jeffrey Inaba’s installation warms the cold cement interior of the Whitney Museum lower level

It is a ritual I have witnessed for over twenty years (and one I have participated in with variations in intensity): The Whitney Biennial Grouse. The cacophony of anger, outrage and “how could they?” that erupts around this show every two years has become as much a part of its tradition and import as the work on display. And as if to codify (and perhaps co-opt?) that external form of the Whitney ritual, this year’s catalog includes news clippings from previous shows. The headlines read as vituperously as the American press’ reception to the 1913 Amory Show.

I have referenced this phenomena before (see Gimme Shelter) and have to smile when I think about how many years I have been approaching this event as the “ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, ‘I can’t wait to hate it’ Whitney Biennial.” So in the spirit of the times, when old forms are imploding and new ones emerging, I have embraced a new methodology with which to approach the show.

Here’s my new game plan:

1. Treat it as you would a gallery exhibit, nothing more.
2. Go with another artist friend who is not bitter, narrow-minded or prone to grousing . (My partner for this and all future Biennials will be the inimitable Paula Overbay.)
3. Find the work that moves you. There have been years when there was only one. But one is more than zero. And this year there were several!
4. Wear earplugs.*

And this is the year to approach the show without all the vitriol because it is different. For the first time, more women than men. And fewer artists are included so the experience is more manageable. I enjoyed the day. Truly.

*The only negative comment I will make about the 2010 Whitney Biennial is the unfortunate spillover of installation soundtracks into every gallery. There is work in this show that deserves quiet and self-reflection. This was impossible given the curatorial decision to blend media and formats. So Suzan Frecon’s masterful pieces can only be seen in concert with a completely incongruous soundtrack emanating from the Bruce High Quality Foundation‘s installation next door. I like both of these works, but they should not be sharing the same wall. It’s like trying to roll out a delicate confection on a garlic cutting board.

Here is a sampling of my favorites. Each artist’s name is linked to the Whitney Museum site so you can read more about the artist and the works included in the show. BTW, these are in order if you start on the top floor and work down.


Leslie Vance

Vance reminds me of a more lyrical version of Tomma Abts. Her work has a very specific technique and approach, but the results are quite lyrical and evocative. Beautifully painted.


Curtis Mann

Mann is able to bring together photography, retinality (a “painterly” sense) and politics in a cogent and innovative fashion. Very memorable.


Tauba Auerbach

A young artist who already has a number of bodies of work is exhibiting extraordinary large scale trompe-l’œil paintings. Fresh, fun and intriguing.


Suzan Frecon

One of the older artists in the show (go girl!), Frecon is exhibiting two paintings that are absolutely exquisite. Subtle and yet strong, powerful and yet intimate. I could have stood with them for a long time were it not for extenuating curatorial circumstances. (OK, enough. I’ve already made my case. No grousing!)


Pae White

White’s piece is a massive tapestry that is based on an image of light reflecting off of metallic surfaces. This work is so massive and yet lyrical, beautifully attentive to both the craft and the aura. Wow.

Aurel Schmidt

If there is a breakout darling from the show it is probably newcomer Schmidt who is 27 yeas old and untrained . Who needs art school when you can draw like this one can? A must see.


Jeffrey Inaba

The images at the top of the post are a better view of architect Inaba’s massive upside down flowers hanging over the lower level. They slowly change color and are such a perfect counterpoint to the hard edge qualities of that open space in the museum. I wish they could stay as a permanent installation.

My favorite review of the show is (of course) by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine. It is so worthy of a full read, as is this biennial.

Today is the last day of the show Drawn to Detail, at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln Massachusetts. From their description of the show:

Drawn to Detail features a variety of contemporary drawings with a very particular focus. This exhibition displays the work of 26 American artists who explore extreme attention to detail, obsessive mark-making, repetition, patterning, laborious process, all-over intricate design, and horror vacui (fear of empty space). These artists draw with extreme attention to detail as a reaction to today’s hectic lifestyle and technological advancements, and also because of their desire to make sense of the changing world around them. In addition to traditional mediums of graphite, charcoal, and pen and ink, these artists also work with materials such as string, tape and smoke, and practices adopted from the world of craft.

In today’s fast-paced, digital world, we rarely have time for detail. Attention deficit disorders prevail, while advertisers feed on our need to multitask and to find timesaving shortcuts wherever we can. The artists in this exhibition add detail, work with a detailed visual vocabulary, or even detail the passage of time by listing and recording the particulars of events. They can render an abstraction or a recognizable image, sometimes so small that the viewer needs a magnifying glass to decipher it.

Like most group shows (IMHO), the experience felt uneven. Some of the work is stunning. Some is mundane and so optically challenging that I had to step out of the exhibit hall a few times to clear my head. Because the work has by definition a decided tediousness associated with its process, I am constantly juggling with what I have referred to previously as the “termite art” factor: Is it the infinite mark making that amazes us, or the overall result? Is the kind of tedious mark making that a 9th century monk living in isolation might spend his life doing as relevant in our streamlined modern age with its numerous options for technical facility? My response to some of the work was yes. Others, not so much.

(Courtesy of Cynthia Lin)

It was certainly a high point to see the work of Slow Painter Cynthia Lin in the flesh (you can see more images by her on my art blog, Slow Painters). These macroscopically-rendered drawings of flesh and hair are so well done, almost unnervingly so. I found myself falling into the depth of texture she creates in this flea’s view of the human body. She delivers up a size warp, but does so with so much craft.

Spillway (Courtesy of Andrea Sulzer)

I was also enchanted by Andrea Sulzer’s enormous and extremely painterly ink drawings. They are referential and yet not, familiar and yet strange, interior and yet expansive. Once again the scale of the works—they fill a wall—make viewing feel adventuresome.

Marco Maggi (his work is almost too subtle to experience in any form except in the flesh)

Already a fan of Marco Maggi’s delicate tracings of mythical cities and landscapes, I was moved when I read the following quote by him on the wall. It is so in line with my vision for Slow Muse, and it represents an aesthetic sensibility that continues to be missing from mainstream art reportage:

When I understand, I write; when I don’t understand, I draw. When we don’t understand, we doubt and reduce the speed of our decision-making. We become subtle and cautious. Every time you make a mark, all your faculties must operate. We all feel a bit offside at the start of the twenty-first century. The only hope available is unambitious and slow: hypo-hope. Therefore, I practice slow art to exchange ideology for delicacy, to swap spectacle for intimacy.

That is the best artist statement I’ve ever read.