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Dorothea Tanning, painter and poet

Evening

He told us, with the years, you will come
To love the world.

And we sat there with our souls in our laps,
And comforted them.

–Dorothea Tanning

Tanning is that rare being who embodies gifts in the poetic domain as well as the visual. A woman with a long history in the American art world of the 20th century, Tanning began branching out into other forms of expression later in life. (Ah, that “later in life” theme again!)

This poem has a simple power and suggests to me the single minded intentionality of a bold stroke of paint across a large canvas. One movement of the arm, but it says so much.

A bit of background about Tanning, from Poets.org:

“It’s hard to be always the same person,” reads the epigraph for A Table of Content, Dorothea Tanning’s first book of poems, published in 2004. After half a century of acclaimed drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, and set and costume design—with pieces in major museum collections, including the Tate Gallery, London; the Centre Pompidou and the Musée de la Ville de Paris, both in Paris; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Chicago Art Institute, among others—Tanning turned her eye (and ear) to poetry, reinventing herself after retiring from visual mediums.

As W. S. Merwin put it: “She goes out of the room, comes back, and she’s someone else—and after a few hours I think, Phew, that’ll do for a while!” Tanning has long been known as a friend of poets, and her public shift toward poetry may very well have been due to years of private collaborations and intimacies.

Another Language of Flowers, a book published in 1998 documenting Tanning’s last paintings, what she calls her “foray into imaginative botany,” can be seen as another of the artist’s points of transformation. Tanning believed that she was finished with painting until she discovered a collection of blank and very valuable Lefebvre-Foinet canvases she’d bought in Paris twenty years earlier.

Determined to use the fine canvases, Tanning spent almost a year—between June, 1997 and April, 1998—sketching and completing twelve large paintings of imaginary flowers. Those paintings, and her preperatory sketches, are reproduced in the book, with each image given a fictional name—such as “Victrola floribunda”—and accompanied by a poem. James Merrill, who had been a kind of mentor to Tanning and had died three years before she began the flowers series, provides the lines for the first image: “A wish. Come true? Here’s where to learn.” John Ashbery, Richard Howard, J. D. McClatchy, Anthony Hecht, Adrienne Rich, and others also give voices to the flowers.

Within a year of completing her flowers series, Tanning, at eighty-nine, began publishing her own poems, and within another year was being recognized for poems in Poetry, Parnassus, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Plougshares, and others. Now, with a full collection of startling and perceptive poetry, which C. D. Wright has called “a meal not to be late for,” Tanning has fully transformed her career and earned her a place among American poets.

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Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst (they were married in 1946)

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I found a terrific article about painting and its complex relationship with the contemporary art scene. It is so provocative, and it reflects many of my own beliefs about the “state of the art” (so to speak) of painting that I posted most of it on my Slow Painting blog.

I don’t want to come across as a monomaniacal, logger headed defender of the ancient practice of painting, especially now when there are so many options for visual expression. While I am regularly delighted and provoked by art delivered in other media, there’s no other method that has ever captured for me the power, scope, reach, and depth of applying gooey stuff to a flat, receptive surface. And that connection happened even though I came of age as an artist during a time when painting was being vociferously declared (once more, with feeling) DEAD. As a result, I began my career as an artist on a definite back beat. Knowingly.

The story of how painting as survived successive waves of being disregarded is certainly more complex than a single newspaper article can cover, but Christopher Knight of the Los Angles Times pulls on a few of the key threads that feed into a knotty tapestry of influences and trends. He starts by sharing the dilemma of a young painter still in school (which is, uncannily, almost exactly the same sentiments I encountered when I was an art student years ago.) “They sneer and say I’m foolish because painting is obsolete, and I don’t know what to say to them,” she said.

Ah, that old chestnut—the belief that art is like science and technology and discussed in the context of progress. That means the old traditions, like painting, become obsolete, “like absolute monarchy or 8-track tapes.”

Knight’s advice to the young artist is clear and straightforward: Say thanks, and mean it.

The short explanation for expressing gratitude is that every young artist should take hostile groupthink — the promiscuous pressure to conform — as a cue that she’s on the right track. Those pressures can be especially acute at school. That’s one hazard of the current pervasiveness of academic training for artists.

Knight goes on to demonstrate that the shift in painting’s place within the au courant practices of fine arts has more to do with the decentralization of art (with New York no longer being an essential center of gravity) than a particular trend or movement. His final point is well taken:

Painting, unlike most image-making practices in industrial or post-industrial society, is already pretty much a solitary job. Rarely do production assistants, teams of fabricators and collaborators gather in a painter’s studio, as they do for movies at Paramount, TV shows at HBO and at the far-flung art factories established by video artist Bill Viola, sculptor Jeff Koons or installation artist Ann Hamilton. Usually it’s just one person in a room, with a flat plane and some colors, trying to juice the corpse and make it dance.

That’s the real legerdemain facing anyone determined to be a painter, whether the student who asked the original question gets the support of her teachers and peers or not. Painting isn’t dead — or, more precisely, it always has been and always will be. The perpetual trick is to give a painting life.

Yeah, baby.

Moonbeam

The mist rose with a little sound. Like a thud.
Which was the heart beating. And the sun rose, briefly diluted.
And after what seemed years, it sank again
and twilight washed over the shore and deepened there.
And from out of nowhere lovers came,
people who still had bodies and hearts. Who still had
arms, legs, mouths, although by day they might be
housewives and businessmen.

The same night also produced people like ourselves.
You are like me, whether or not you admit it.
Unsatisfied, meticulous. And your hunger is not for experience
but for understanding, as though it could be had in the abstract.

Then it’s daylight again and the world goes back to normal.
The lovers smooth their hair; the moon resumes its hollow existence.
And the beach belongs again to mysterious birds
soon to appear on postage stamps.

But what of our memories, the memories of those who depend on images?
Do they count for nothing?

The mist rose, taking back proof of love.
Without which we have only the mirror, you and I.

–Louise Gluck

Ah, a bit of Gluck with which to begin a new year…

Jeff Jarvis writes a blog called Buzz Machine that deals with blogging and the state of media practices. Like most bloggers, I am fascinated to watch the way the blogging phenom continues to propagate, morph and constellate. Jarvis’ blog is a good place to start if you want a catalog of opinions on where some informed types think this is headed and how blogging is interacting with other expressive forms.

This excerpt from Buzz Machine is by Andras Szanto (who teaches at CUNY in the journalism school):

The blogsphere today is more or less where the arts were circa 1975. It’s a realm of new opportunities, naïve expectations, and faux democracy. It’s smack in the middle of that euphoric moment that every innovative movement goes through before it makes its own peace with the status quo. Back in the seventies, it seemed everything was possible in the art world. Anything could be art and “everyone an artist,” as Beuys proclaimed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this pluralist nirvana. Three decades later we are seeing an unprecedented institutionalization and commercialization of art. The entry fee into a successful art career is a $60,000 MFA. And while laissez-faire rules, aesthetically speaking, who can doubt that the artists being seen and heard are the ones who have the muscle of major galleries, presenting institutions, and distribution companies behind them. From the cloud of unbounded opportunity has emerged a new ironclad structure, no less selective and, in its own way, constraining than what had come before. To some degree, the very scale and openness of postmodern culture have mandated these new filters and hierarchies. And so it will go with the blogsphere. When the smoke clears, we will be back to listening and trusting a finite number of voices. We will depend on them, and we won’t have time for many more.

In the interest of full disclosure, Jarvis did not agree with Szanto’s assertions. His response to this excerpt was, “I’ll disagree. He assumes that there is still a scarcity of gallery walls. No, there’ll only be a scarcity of money.”

As always, it depends on your point of view. From where I sit, an oversupply of gallery walls is not the problem. (Could it ever be?)

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Empty Space, By Anne Hamilton

Matins

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?

Louise Gluck

I’m in one of those phases where language, spoken or written, feels like a sock that doesn’t fit around the heel. There are times when just digging, whether for weeds or clover, is the only gesture that feels authentic. And in that silence I can detect the slow shifting of a hibernating beast, my own, moving in its lair down deep in the earth.

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Ancient Mississippi courses

For those of you who fell in love with BibliOdyssey, here’s another site to delight your mind and your eye. Strange maps is chock full of images that provoke, delight, entice, perplex.

Maps must be on the mind since I found this site quite by accident just hours after reading about two new compelling books about maps recently published–Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations, by Vincent Virga, and Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, from University of Chicago Press.

The translation of the territory, with all its complexities and textures, into an ordered and limited view is part of what artists or poets are about. And yet how easy it is to forget that the map is not the territory, just one slice of the multifaceted kosmos it references.

Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.

–Rita Mae Brown

These days I’m filling life with a lot more silence than is usual for me. Just a single thought or insight seems food enough for a day in the studio. And each morning begins by breaking everything apart and starting new (“If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.” See posting on Picabia below.)

This morning I love this quote. Creativity. Trust. Instincts. Hope. Work. Big ideas, each.

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Rita Mae Brown, author of Rubyfruit Jungle, among many others

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Francis Picabia in his studio

If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.

Our heads are round so that our thinking can change directions.

–Francis Picabia

Picabia (1879-1953) had a life that included a number of shirt changes. He lived in Paris at a point in time with so many forces were at play, and his friendships were many (including Marcel Duchamp and Gertrude Stein). The evolution of his work speaks to changed directions and changed points of view, from detached Dada-esque mechanical drawings to surrealism to figurative nudes. He also had a Jay Leno-like obsession with cars.

Following the same furrow and deepening the dig has its own merits. But there are times when you have to drop your hoe and leave the task unfinished. Making that call requires some way of knowing when the moment is right. And that it is always an option.

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