August 2007

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Yet another reason to be in New York sometime in the next week, more specifically Miller’s Launch, a forgotten corner of Staten Island. Mabou Mines, a theatre company that has been thrilling my sensibilities for 30 years, has done it again and stepped way outside the expected. This time it is a new production from a barge. Song for New York: What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting, is the company’s seaborne celebration of New York in music and verse, and is their first site-specific production.

From the New York Times:

“Song for New York” came together over several years. Ms. Maleczech [a founder of Mabou Mines] first conceived of it in 2002, partly as a response to Sept. 11. By 2003, she had chosen five women to write the five poems, one for each borough, that form the basis of the work.

“It’s a response to Walt Whitman’s great New York poems, and Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge poem,” she said. “Those poems are old now, and I thought it would be good for women to speak for the city.”

The new verses are sung by five of them to a mishmash of musical styles, from jazz ballads to tarantellas. They’re connected by a historical narrative — a yarn, in Mabou’s parlance.

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My exposure to this remarkable troupe (a better word to describe the assemblage of people who have orbited around founder Lee Breuer) began when they breezed through University of California at Santa Cruz my last year of college in the mid-70′s. Several of my friends were so compelled by their encounter with intense and charismatic Lee that they moved to New York to continue working with him. Alison Yerxa, a woman of consummate talents, stayed with me in my loft in the Lower East Side before she found a place of her own. My memory of that time is highlighted by her assignment to build a 10 foot high transistor radio for Shaggy Dog Animations. (Alison went on to design the spectacular backdrop for the initial–and now legendary–production of Gospel at Colonus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is presently a special effects guru in Los Angeles.)

Recent MM productions continue a history of boundary busting. Red Beads featured Breuer and Maleczech’s daughter Clove suspended above the stage, and the 2003 production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was performed by male midgets and very tall women. The children’s furniture on stage was painfully undersized for these statuesque women, and the men were carried in the arms of the women like toddlers. I will never experience that play the same again.

What I have always loved about Mabou Mines is the way visual imagery is treated as a character. It isn’t a secondary concern or just a back drop to the theatrical vision. This is similar to what I find most provocative about Matthew Barney’s Cremaster as well. Both speak to the visual imagination in a manner that is intuitive, poetic, nonlinear and subconscious. In a word, delicious.

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Giotto fresco in Padua

Another excerpt from Out of Eden by DiPiero. This one is from the essay, Matisse’s Broken Circle, and is particularly interesting in its reference to Matisse’s concept of the religious imagination and his emulation of Giotto. I am compelled by DiPiero’s claim that Matisse’s career was “the most sustained and variegated exercise of religious imagination of our time.”

The religious imagination is a respondent, form-making act of consciousness…It assumes and is aware of a reality greater and more inclusive than individual consciousness, and it allows that awareness to shape its products. It seeks fusion even while it sedulously practices analysis and individuation. In such terms, Matisse’s career was the most sustained and variegated exercise of religious imagination of our time. Even more than Cezanne and Giacometti, and in a more methodical and self-conscious way than Van Gogh, he practiced painting as an expansive ceremonial of consciousness. And the eternal conflict between line and color was for him a medium of erotic desire. The presiding precursor of Matisse’s enterprise was Giotto. Matisse’s remarks about him arc over the long middle period of his career…He saw in Giotto a comprehensiveness, an integral completeness, that was both preliminary and summative, which possessed the preparatory definitions of cartooning and the conclusive exaltation of color fields. Matisse had already described in 1907 the two preoccupations that sheared off from Giotto’s unities as Sienese primitivism and spirituality (“disegno”) and Venetian physicality (“colorito”). Giotto remained the model of achieved completion and must have come to seem even purur as Matisse worked his way, decade by decade, through all the formal consequences of the breakup of that unity. As late as 1946 he wrote to Pierre Bonnard, “Giotto is the peak of my aspirations. But the journey towards something which, in our time, would constitute the equivalent is too long for one life…”

In 1951, three years before he died [Matisse said:] “All art worthy of the name is religious. Be it a creation of lines, or colors: if it is not religious, it does not exist. If it is not religious, it is only a matter of documentary art, anecdotal art…which is no longer art.”

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Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure

Another passage of interest from W. S. Piero’s Out of Eden:

Why are the jets and emulsive tracks of paints in Pollock’s Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 so compelling? It’s not only because he was creating a greater plasticity of space and laying out dozens of contested fields of formal activity where disintegrating patterns pitch against imminent, struggling stabilities. There’s something one can’t reduce satisfactorily to formal terms. In 1964 the Romanian-born Eliade, who was a great admirer of his countryman Brancusi, spoke of “nonfigurative painters who abolish representational forms and surfaces, penetrate to the inside of matter, and try to reveal the ultimate structures of substance.” In order to talk about Pollock, and Rothko for that matter, in other than purely formalist vocabularies (and to avoid the useless argument that both were representationalists masquerading as abstractionists), we have to…talk about the sacred and the mundane. Eliade also says that non-representational art corresponds to the “demythologization” in religion advocated by Rudolph Bultmann. As Christianity may dissolve the images and symbols of its traditional narratives to confront once again the freshness of religious experience in our secular, materialistic time, certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation. Moreover, he says, today’s artist “sees only the freshness of the first day of the world—he does not yet see its ‘face.’ The time of the epiphany has not yet arrived, or does the world truly have no face?” I think Pollock and Rothko worked to paint that facelessness. For Rothko it was toned with a magisterial, voluminous solemnity. For Pollock the tone was one of self-devouring conflict.

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My friend Stephen overlooking Frog Lake

I’m back in my life online after a three week hiatus. Some of those days away were deeply satisfying. Roaming the Farmer’s Market in San Francisco (held every Saturday at the Ferry Building) is a pleasure I feel so deeply at every level that having that stroll through the plethora of colors and textures and tastes is as important to a Bay Area visit as my regular pilgrimages to the De Young Museum and SFMOMA. And a week spent with good friends on a remote alpine lake in the Sierras, far from cell phones and electricity, was the best antidote for that crusty accretion that accumulates on us citydwellers, like the street salt on a car’s underbelly during a winter of too much snow.

The days spent in Utah with my mother were hard. While I was pleased that her cognitive abilities have improved–she can now say our names–that increased cognition has also brought an increase in her self awareness. She now gets that her life is in limbo, caught hopelessly in that Sisyphus-like place between a strong body and a damaged mind. This outcome is heartbreaking.

I have had lots of time to read, and that has been a gift. I have been reading poetry, primarily Dante and Emily Dickinson. The first third of Jim Harrison’s novel, Returning to Earth, is particularly brilliant. Michael Kimmelman’s The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa is a fast and fun read. Out of Eden, by W. S. Piero, is a collection of essays by a literary man with a penchant for art. His point of view often aligns itself with my take on things, and his writing is elegant and friendly. Here’s a sample:

By the end of the century, the sense of the sacred is expressed in the visible manipulation of artistic forms and material. John Berger says in his book on Picasso: “The artist who finds his subject within his own activity as an artist did not exist before the end of the nineteenth century, and Cezanne is probably the prototype.” The one god finally dissolved into a vague polyvalent presence available only in the action of paint, stone, line, etc. Form itself became a sacred subject, the other reality the artist sought. The motif could be familiar—still life, portrait of a gardener, landscape, bathers, dancers, laborers, businessmen—but the real topic was the artist’s way of seeing and imaging forth the given. The axis shifted: the sacred, no longer inhered in the sublime, absolute presence of things, it was worked into manifestation in the forms made in response to that presence. The image wasn’t a mediator, it was a generator, or genitor. It did not constitute a new liturgy, it expressed the reality of transcendence without the articulation and sacramentalism of liturgy.

Piero has also written an excellent essay on Giacometti (on which the title of the book is based) and included some smarmy and dismissive comments that Picasso made about Bonnard (how dare you, Pablo!) All in all, very engaging.

More tomorrow.

Off Road

I am back from Utah for just two days and then back off the grid again. Tomorrow I am driving 9 hours to Chautauqua New York, transporting 6 paintings for a show at the Chautauqua Institution. I’ll be back for one day and then heading west, to California and to Utah again.

My mother fainted in a store, hit her head on the ground and suffered a subdural hematoma. Her injuries have caused her to lose her language abilities, impaired her memory and basic reasoning skills. Last week I sat with her every day for 15 hours, and I watched carefully for signs of what is going on inside her head.

Brain injuries are unpredictable. No one knows what will happen or how much she can recover. Right before I flew home, my good friend Matt Thomas lent me a book by an author I have enjoyed in the past–Paul Collins. He is a historian as well as a memoirist, and this book, Not Even Wrong, brings together experiences with his autistic son and the history of how autism became identified as a condition. His descriptions are poetic and provocative. And although my mother’s condition has nothing to do with autism, I found comfort in his careful peeling back of what he has learned from dealing with his son Morgan. My mother’s mental faculties are off-road right now, far from the high speed traffic of the interstate. Trying to track just where her journey is taking her requires a lot of patience and hope.

And as a side note: Collins makes a case for the inheritability of autism, with a higher incidence occurring among bloodlines that have a concentration of engineers, musicians and artists. Food for thought…

Other books by Paul Collins that I found worthwhile: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World, and Banvard’s Folly.

I’ll write again next week when I am back for a short stay before heading west. Thank you to so many of you who have been so supportive to me during this very difficult time, especially my sibling co-travelers–Rebecca, Betsy, Thomas, Katherine and Jonathan.