June 2007

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Daily life came to a standstill for me this week while two beloved nephews went through long and arduous surgeries. One was planned, the other was not. Bless you both, Spencer and Ben, for making it through this part of your health crisis ordeal. During this difficult couple of days I have been in a throe of wonder (yet again a hat tip to Jerry Miller) at every human body with its complement of soft and vulnerable tissues that is healthy and functioning.

For after the first door there are many others, each of which opens up to us a universe we hadn’t expected to exist. These universes are not…the playthings of language. Rather, if we are to trust the testimony of wonder, we are to say they are, each one, a universe of being, holy and wholly real, though we have no access to them except through childlike astonishment. If Socrates was right, the purpose of all thinking is not to get us through that door once and for all but to get us, over and over again, into the throe of opening it. His word for wonder was wisdom.

Jerome A. Miller
In the Throe of Wonder

I was introduced to the philosophical work of Jerome Miller a few years ago by my good friend Nicole Long. She studied with him in college and has been an emissary for his work ever since. I was signed up as a fan as soon as I stepped into his brilliant The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis. For anyone who is doing deep interior landscaping in their lives, this is a terrific handbook for that journey.

This passage is from a subsequent book, In the Throe of Wonder: Intimations of the Sacred in a Post-Modern World:

To be fully rational requires surrendering unconditionally to the throe of wonder instead of clinging to the given; it means allowing oneself to be cast into the abyss of the unknown instead of trying to find a way to secure oneself from that vertiginous possibility. But if this is true, being rational has little in common with the drive to plan and control, the desire to manage and organize the effort to program and systematize, which have led, over the past four centuries, to the “rationalization” of human life in all its facets. Ordinarily, the attempt to “rationalize” human life is motivated by the hope of achieving precisely the kind of control over the unknown which we do not enjoy when we experience it as unknown and so are aware that it transcends us. It is true that to be rational in this managerial sense we are required to be inquirers, but such inquiry is limited to figuring out how to bring the unknown inside the parameters of the known, how to disarm its difference, how to remove its transcendent dimension so as to reduce it to something manageable. Every method which sets up knowledge as a goal to be achieved by means of its methodical procedures conceives of knowing, whether it knows it or not, as the process of gaining control over what is to be known. For in construing knowledge as a goal to be achieved, we make the search for it a practical project which we are to accomplish by making the object of our search yield to our grasp of it. Inquiry is thus transformed into a way of mastering the unknown. What makes the achievement of such mastery so attractive is precisely the fact that it promises to provide us a way to escape the inferior position in which wonder places us when it makes us aware of the unknown which transcends us.

Reading Jerry usually shifts something deep in my core. This passage spoke to my struggle to complete this most recent body of work. I read it as an invitation into another way of being with the process. And there is more, oh so much more from this wise man.

In the spirit of “everything is autobiographical,” I found a conversation (in the Telegraph) with architect Frank Gehry and filmmaker Sydney Pollack that is compelling in its honesty and reassuring in a “misery loves company” sort of way. When asked if things got easier as they got older, here are their responses:

SP: It doesn’t feel to me like making films has gotten easier. I don’t have to struggle to know which end of the camera to look through any more, but I’m not sure that knowing more makes it easier.

FG: I guess there is always that insecure feeling that you have to have in order to go forward. And there’s the fear of being discovered as a fraud…I’m still insecure, I’m still nervous. When I get offered a new project, I look at it and think, “How the hell am I going to get around this?” My sleepless nights are mostly about stuff like that.

SP: I feel the same. With each new film, there’s this overwhelming sense that you might not figure out how to do it this time. I think that anybody who says they don’t have that insecurity is either lying, or they’re past it.

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From Sydney Pollack’s film about his friend Frank, “Sketches of Gehry.”

Chris Jordan’s photographic works are extremely memorable. He knows how to create retinal appeal to be sure, but he also packs a political wallop. Some of you may know of his photographs of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster, published earlier this year.

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Circuit boards

Another of his series, “Intolerable Beauty”, explores the country’s overlooked underbelly of the abandoned, forgotten and discarded. As Jordan says, “Exploring around our country’s shipping ports and industrial yards, where the accumulated detritus of our consumption is exposed to view like eroded layers in the Grand Canyon, I find evidence of a slow-motion apocalypse in progress. I am appalled by these scenes, and yet also drawn into them with awe and fascination. The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.”

Jordan has a new show, “Running the Numbers,” now on view at Von Lintel Gallery in New York. In this new series, Jordan goes after American consumerism:

This series focuses on contemporary American culture through the unassailable lens of statistics. Each intricately detailed and astounding image, assembled from thousands of smaller photographs, portrays a specific quantity of a particular object: 15 million sheets of office paper (demonstrating five minutes of paper use), 1.14 million paper bags (the number used every hour) and so on. Images representing these quantities have a different and more lasting effect than the raw numbers alone, bypassing the numbing effect of facts and figures and giving viewers a visceral sense of the dizzying enormity of our society.

These large-scale works perform dual roles as compelling visual images and as invitations for viewers to reflect on their roles and responsibilities as individuals in hypermodern American mass culture.

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Cell phones

Von Lintel Gallery , in Chelsea (NYC), June 14 to July 30.

For more images, visit Jordan’s website.

Thank you to Jill Fineberg for sending me this link.

The Death of the Painter

At the end of his life
he had money and attention,
and certain towns were known
in connection to his name.

He was fastidious, and wore a tie,
was photographed with brushes, with a bird.
under the subtropical sky
he forgave the things long done.
He hardly saw his children,
by habit was self-absorbed. His atelier
was sacrosanct, with the ocean for a view.
When he painted, it was descent
and descent and descent from the cross,
and when he died

the sepulchre was simple.
His late-life love
wept from another room.

James Arthur

I can hear a pin drop in the space defined by this poem. And the line, “When he painted, it was descent/and descent and descent from the cross” has a particularly poignant ring just about now, as I spend every waking moment in the studio finishing the work for my show in July. Looking for the uplift just about now…

Thank you to Rebecca Salt for sending this poem to me.

I’m a serious “not fan” of David Brooks, op ed writer for the New York Times. But his June 15th piece on the future of genetics is actually pretty funny:

At this very moment thousands of people are surfing the Web looking for genetic material so their children will be nothing like me. They are looking through files at sperm bank sites with Jetson-like names such as Xytex, which have become the new eBays for offspring.

Yes, he over dramatizes these future parents who only want children who are tall, brilliant and athletic, (and preferably with slightly more pigmented skin to avoid the bother of slathering a child with increasingly important sun block.) But in addition to being entertaining, he does raise issues that any discussion of designer genes (yeah, I know, too convenient isn’t it?) brings up.

One of my favorite is the creativity factor:

The people who do this will pay no heed to the fact that mediocre looks have always been a great spur to creative achievement and ugliness is the mother of genius.

In a world in which Brad Pitt is average, say farewell to loneliness, sublimation and nerds’ witty bids for attention. In a world in which everyone is smart, good-looking and pleasant, everyone will be fit to perform in hit movies, but no one will be fit to review them.

Who knows where creativity comes from. I don’t subscribe to the tortured childhood theory of art, but I do believe that the private sorrows of exclusion, for whatever reason, can be instructive and a long term resource. Whatever your views, this is one Brooks probably worth the read.

The National Pastime, in the New York Times

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop

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Bishop (1911 – 1979) is one of the great contemporary American poets. Like a number of other poets, she studied art and considered becoming a painter. The poet Robert Lowell said, “Elizabeth Bishop is the contemporary poet that I admire most …. There’s a beautiful completeness to all of Bishop’s poetry. I don’t think anyone alive has a better eye than she had: The eye that sees things and the mind behind the eye that remembers.”

Her epitaph is taken from the last two lines of her poem “The Bight” and has a haunting eternality:

All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

The New York Times’ website has a clip from Michael Kimmelman who is reporting on the Venice Biennale. He talks about feeling bored by the work at first, but the longer time he spent looking the more he liked what he saw. I was moved by his account of the Gonzalez-Torres installation:

Mr. Storr [commissioner for the exhibit] has also picked two works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the Cuban-born American who (posthumously) represents the United States. His pavilion, put together by Nancy Spector of the Guggenheim, is the biennale’s most elegant by far. Gifted beyond reason at turning hard-nosed Minimalism into humble, humane art, Mr. Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96) gets the tribute he deserves. I returned a few times to a sepulchral white room in the pavilion where a rectangular carpet of licorice candies (you may take one if you wish) evokes a gravesite beneath a rectangle of scrimmed skylight. My heart leapt.

The Times also published a bigger and even better shot of the tapestried structure by El Anatsui which I couldn’t resist posting here. (For more about this go to Slow Painting and the posting from June 14th, “Tessellated, Lumpy, Glittering.”)

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Kimmelman’s final comment struck me as apropos to what I’ve been able to glean from his reporting as well as some other bloggers on site:

This is quiet art. Much of this biennale murmurs, it doesn’t shout. The art world these days often bellows and struts. I doubt this biennale will be recalled as groundbreaking or dynamic , but it is an independent show, strong in its convictions.

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(Image courtesy of Seraphin Gallery)

Natalie Alper’s show at the Seraphin Gallery in Philadelphia was scrumptous. Big, lush strokes of metalic pigmented acrylic ribbon across a subtle underlayer of graphite marked canvas. And as her last painterly gesture, she sets this juicy field back just a bit from us by marking the surface with a loose net of horizontal and vertical scoring. The colors–rich blues, greens and coppers–are earth tones at their most bedazzling.

I’m a long time fan of Seraphin Gallery and of Alper’s work. A well known star on the Boston art scene, Alper’s work just gets better and better.

I caught the last day of Tuttle’s show at Sperone Westwater in New York last weekend. SW on West 13th Street is an open, multi-roomed white space. It could be daunting for someone whose works are often delicate and small. But Tuttle fills the galleries to the brim with intimately-sized wall pieces whose only similarity is their armature of crudely cut plywood.

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Richard Tuttle installation at Sperone Westwater

The show knocked my frequency up ten notches. How can you not feel hopeful about the world when you see what Tuttle can do with throw away-sized pieces of paper, chunks of wood, a piece of string here, a wire there? Simple, everyday objects are rendered enchanted, one after another.

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Tuttle’s creativity has been inspiring me since his first Whitney show in the mid 1970′s. That show raised a ruckus. Here is Marcia Tucker’s account of that event:

In 1975, at the Whitney Museum in New York, I organized a show of the work of Richard Tuttle, an artist whose unconventionally humble materials (string, wire, pencil, nails, rope, cloth) and deliberately offhand placement of work appealed to me. Viewers came to the museum expecting to see traditional artistic skills and materials employed in the making of the sculpture, and to enjoy them in an appropriately formal setting, with explanatory wall labels and a substantive catalog of the artist’s past work. When they were disappointed in their expectations, visitors tried to rip the pieces off the walls. Critics and journalists complained vociferously about everything from the installation (which was changed three times during the exhibition, using many of the same pieces), to the publication of the catalog after the show closed (in order to include site-specific photographs as well the critical response), to the work itself. One reviewer griped that “seeing Tuttle’s work makes you scrutinize the teensy- weensy hairline cracks in the wall,” clearly not what he had come to expect or to value. Another made constant reference to “the Emperor’s new clothes,” and called for my dismissal (which, in fact, occurred in the aftermath of the controversy.)

Things have changed this then. His recent retrospective (once again at the Whitney and even more spectacularly at the San Francisco Museum of Art) was a huge success, winning Tuttle kudos for a genius career of art making.

One of the things I have always loved about Tuttle is that he keeps it fresh. Repeats almost never happen under his hand. He finds a brilliant constructed moment, acknowledges it, and then moves on to yet another simple but provocative juxtaposition of forms. Unlike some artists whose OCD tendencies drive them to work just one idea down to threadbare, Tuttle is always in flow to the next surprise of shapes, colors and composition.

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