March 2009

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Wait
(to someone contemplating suicide)

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

–Galway Kinnell

This poem gives me hope. And what a set of images—”music of hair/music of pain/music of looms weaving all our loves again.”

Galway Kinnell was born in Providence in 1927. He has been a teacher and a winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a MacArthur grant. He has been called “America’s preeminent visionary” whose work “greets each new age with rapture and abundance [and] sets him at the table with his mentors: Rilke, Whitman, Frost.”

“At a time when so many poets are content to be skillful and trivial, Kinnell speaks with a big voice about the whole of life.”
—Robert Langbaum, American Poetry Review

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How heartening it is when you find a passage that captures the essence of some of your internal floaters—those inchoate, imprecise concepts that circumambulate in the mind and never quite land on two feet. I had the settling sensation of an exhale that comes when order has been brought to a previously perceived chaos when I read Louis Menand’s article about the writer/thinker Donald Barthelme in the Febrary 23rd issue of The New Yorker.

The whole piece is worth a read, but I want to share a few passages that crystallized my thinking about a whole slew of responses to modernism and postmodernism as applied to critical theory, thinking, art and culture. Writers more proficient than the rest of us in the evolution of consciousness have written about the sea change in thinking that happened during the 60′s and 70′s. But observing the flow of these ideas as a visual artist has left me with a mishmash of responses. At times this shift has been utterly euphoric, like my first encounter with the thinking in A Thousand Plateaus. At other times I have felt the white heat of an arid emptiness, one where there is a poignant absence of the salty sweat and heavy breathing of beings who are making real things that matter, to them and to others.

Menand captures some aspect of that ambivalence (and the need for definitional distinctions) in his piece on Barthelme.

Postmodernism is the Swiss Army knife of critical concepts. It’s definitionally overloaded, and it can do almost any job you need done. This is partly because, like many terms that begin with “post,” it is fundamentally ambidextrous. Postmodernism can mean, “We’re all modernists now. Modernism has won.” Or it can mean, “No one can be a modernist anymore. Modernism is over.” People who use “postmodernism” in the first “mission accomplished,” sense believe that modernism—the art and literature associated with figures like Picasso and Joyce—changed the game completely, and that everyone is still working through the consequences. Modernism is the song that never ends. Being postmodernist just means that we can never be pre-modernist again. People who use it in the second sense, as the epitaph for modernism, think that, somewhere along the line, there was a break with the assumptions, practices, and ambitions of modernist art and literature, and that everyone since then is (or ought to be) on to something different. Being postmodernist means that we can never be modernist again.

How (in the first account) did people like Picasso and Joyce change the game? They did it by shifting interest from the what to the how of art, from the things represented in a painting or a novel to the business of representation itself. Modern art didn’t abandon the world, but it made art-making part of the subject matter of art. When (in the second account) did the break occur? It happened when artists and intellectuals stopped respecting a bright-line distinction between high art and commercial culture. Modernist art and literature in this version of the story, depended on that distinction to give its products critical authority…

It is sometimes said that the distinction between high and commercial culture collapsed when artists and intellectuals discovered aesthetic merit in things like jazz and movies…If you propose to admire a popular movie because it’s formally interesting or morally exigent, you aren’t changing the system of appreciation at all. There may be some new stuff above the line, but there’s still a line. What killed the distinction wasn’t defining pop art up. It was defining high art down. It was the recognition that serious art,too, is produced and consumed in a marketplace. the point of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup-can paintings was not that a soup can is like a work of art. It was that a work of art is like a soup can: they are both commodities.

This calling into question, problematizing, deconstruction—whatever you want to call it—of the status of art is what makes a lot of people uncomfortable with postmodernism in the second sense. They don’t see that sort of postmodernism as demystifying; they see it as debunking. High art and literature have always been stimulated by popular sources (and have given stimulus back); and anti-art, art that thumbs its nose at aesthetic decorum, has an honored place in the modernist tradition. Duchamp and the Dadaists were making anti-art almost a hundred years ago. But you can make anti-art—Duchamp’s “Fountain”, for example—only when everyone still has some conception of authentic, stand-alone, for-its-own-sake art. Warhol’s work is not anti-art. Finding no quality on which to hang a distinction between authentic art and everything else, it simply drops the whole question.

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Herb and Dorothy Vogel, art collectors extraordinaire, at home

The April 2009 issue of Modern Painters magazine has an interview by Christopher Turner with documentarist Megumi Sasaki about her new film, Herb and Dorothy. The story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel is so outrageous and runs so against the grain of everything I have known about art collecting, I cannot stop thinking about these two individuals and what they achieved.

The whole story reads like a fairy tale.

Here is Sasaki’s description of her film:

Do you have to be a Medici or a Rockefeller to collect art?

Not according to Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. This documentary film tells the extraordinary story of Herb, a postal clerk, and Dorothy, a librarian – an ordinary couple of modest means who managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history.

In the early 1960s, when very little attention was paid to Minimalist and Conceptual Art, Herb and Dorothy quietly began purchasing the works of unknown artists. Devoting all of Herb’s salary to buy art, and living on Dorothy’s paycheck alone, they continued collecting artworks guided by two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and small enough to fit in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Within these limitations, they proved themselves curatorial visionaries; most of those they supported and befriended went on to become world-renowned artists. Their circle includes: Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi and Lawrence Weiner.

Thirty years on, the Vogels had managed to accumulate over 4,000 pieces, filling every corner of their living space from the bathroom to the kitchen. “Not even a toothpick could be squeezed into the apartment,” recalls Dorothy. Their apartment was near collapse, holding way over its limit – something had to be done.

In 1992, the Vogels made headlines that shocked the art world: their entire collection was moved to the National Gallery of Art, the vast majority of it as an outright gift to the institution. Many of the works they acquired at modest prices appreciated so significantly that their collection became worth several million dollars, yet the Vogels never sold a single piece to breakdown the collection.

Herb and Dorothy still live in the same apartment today- with 19 turtles, lots of fish, one cat -once completely emptied, now refilled again with piles of artworks.

The Vogels’ discerning taste and magnanimity changed the face of contemporary art collecting. In 20 James Stourton, the chairman of Sotheby’s UK, included the Vogels in his acclaimed book, Great Collectors of Our Time: Art Collecting Since 1945. Stourton placed Herb and Dorothy among the top art collectors in the world, alongside Getty, Rockefeller and Mellon.

While there are countless films that feature artists, there are few about art collectors. Herb and Dorothy provides a unique chronicle of the world of contemporary art from two unlikely collectors, whose shared passion and discipline defies stereotypes and redefines what it means to be a patron of the arts.

In Turner’s interview, Sasaki shares an insight she came to while making the film that is also very memorable:

Six months into production, I did the first on-camera interview with Herb and Dorothy and asked them, “Why did you like this artists or that art work?” They just replied, “because it’s beautiful” or “because we like them.” I thought, Oh, my god, how can I make a film about art collectors who can’t articulate anything about their collection? Then I met Lucio Pozzi, the first artists we interviewed for the film and told him about the difficulties I was having; his response was, “That why Herb and Dorothy are so unique and special. Why do you have to verbalize and explain visual art? Why can’t you simply say I like it or I don’t like it?” Art is not something you have to explain, but feel. That’s the great lesson I learned from Herb and Dorothy.

I am completely enchanted. God bless you both, Herb and Dorothy. And while I have you, can I ask if there is any way to clone the likes of you?

Viewings of the film at festivals and in theaters are listed here.

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Herb and Dorothy at the Gates in Central Park

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Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

–Mary Oliver

A number of wisdom traditions make the claim that “reality” is exactly as it should be. Many believe that suffering is all in the mind, that it results from desire, a need for love, for approval, for security. If we can give up those misery-making responses it would be possible to just be in this moment, free and clear and at peace.

I have thought about that idea for years. Maybe I’m moving closer to understanding it, but I still feel a lot of resistance. Perhaps that is perfect too, just what has to happen so that I can continue to explore its deeper meaning. After all, what you resist, persists.

Is it our nature to be happy? Oliver has dealt with pain so repeatedly in her poetry, perhaps that is a question that is just meant to float. I for one do not believe the answer is anything short of complex.

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I’m still tracking the Obama administration’s pending appointment of an art czar. Robin Pogrebin wrote an excellent overview in the New York Times two days ago that answered many of the questions I have been asking.

Here’s the latest on Obama’s old buddy from Chicago who is currently coordinating arts issues for the White House:

The staff member charged with the arts portfolio, Kareem Dale, is relatively young (in his 30s) and potentially overextended (he is already special assistant to the president for disability policy) with little arts experience. And his position has yet to be defined. Mr. Dale is expected to serve temporarily and to be replaced by someone with full-time responsibility for the arts, said a White House official, who asked to remain anonymous because personnel issues had yet to be resolved.

And these final paragraphs end the article on an upbeat:

Teresa Eyring, the executive director of the Theater Communications Group, which represents the country’s nonprofit theaters, said: “Local and regional elected officials and community leaders are seeing and talking about the connection between the arts and the overall health of their communities. The same sensibility hasn’t quite landed at the national level.”

“In President Obama we have a leader who is making the connection,” she added, “who seems to understand both the spiritual and economic necessity of the arts to our nation’s strength.”

Mr. Ivey [former head of the Endowment], who led the transition team devoted to the arts and recently met with Mr. Dale, said he expected the White House position to involve coordinating the work of the Endowment, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“It’s great to have a direct West Wing connection,” Mr. Ivey said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had an administration that thought about the vibrancy of our cultural life as a central public policy,” he added, “as a marker of quality of life in a democracy.”

That’s a powerful statement: “Vibrancy of our cultural life as a central public policy, as a marker of quality of life in a democracy.” Sounds so simple and commonsensical to me, but obviously it is not standard fare in Washington World.

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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Kate Moss modelling for Topshop were cited as contrasting ideals of beauty in a debate on whether or Britain has become indifferent to beauty. Photograph: Corbis/AFP

Beauty. A topic that never goes away. I’ve written about it many times on this blog, quoting from some of my favorite books in the subject. Like the other big tent concepts of Truth, Reality and God, it just keeps roping us in, generation after generation.

The latest riff on this tune is a witty piece by British art/cultural critic Stephen Bayley. I’ve posted it on Slow Painting but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to rant a bit here. While Bayley’s piece is full of that famous British irony and playful cynicism, he does touch on how the shift to a more values-based approach to life is in keeping with the turbulent “revolution” (my word–is it too soon to apply that term to what is happening right now?) we are witnessing. I’m watching and you’re watching as cultural preconceptions and attitudes fractalize and morph into completely unexpected forms. As the title to the aptly-named book Uncontrollable Beauty implies, the Big B will not be held hostage and will not go away, hard as many have tried to shut it out. Its tenacity is, well, downright inspiring.

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The Jewel

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

James Wright

Thank you Whiskey River for another diamond hard hit to the deeper regions. Only 7 lines. What efficiency.

Wright (1927-1980) is an American poet whose most famous book, The Branch Will Not Break was published in 1963. He is often positioned as a counterpoint to the New York school of poetry and the Beats who dominated much of the poetry scene during the 50′s and early 60′s. Through his interest in world poetry, Wright became closely linked with Robert Bly. Since his death in 1980 he has become increasingly influential as a poet.

Wright’s son Franz, a poet, also won the Pulitzer Prize. They are the only parent/child pair to have won in the same category.

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Jane Mayhall died on March 17 at the age of 90. Her most recent volume of poems, Sleeping Late on Judgment Day, her first full-length collection, was published when she was 85 years old. This poem is one of several she wrote about the inconsolable sorrow of love following the death of her husband died in 1997. She was partnered with Leslie George Katz for most of her life.

Speaking to the personal rather than the larger poetic arc, Jane’s relationship with Katz is an extraordinary story. She was 17 when she met him as a fellow student at the infamous Black Mountain College. They lived in the New York City’s art scene of the 50s—the bohemian years when coffee house culture flourished, everybody wore black and imitated the continental flaneur, smoked cigarettes and listened to poetry and jazz til dawn.

See how easy it is to be seduced by all the romantic notions associated with that period of time? But I am also admittedly partial to the concept of the feature length marriage. It’s a rare thing, a point of fascination for me. Fascination, and emulation.

The Gilded Shadow

The impact is simmering down, as into

a solvent liquid. That I’ll never hear your voice

again, but through a medium like

rain. Or will see you but in a lightning flash.

You are nature’s speech, the young girth

and deadly imprint.

I eagerly wait the date of your rebirth, in

the endless window-sky. Hovering cloud, really a

gilded shadow that lights your face outline. Waters

and land permit no elegy translated.

But a stark villanelle, facts rendered.

An indefinite, glorious seeding,

the element that draws us closest. Nucleus of

a meadow, the grass-tips’ ghost your

being. Bend me to earth, the only hereafter after death.

O shades beneath the sun. Or I don’t understand it —

like embracing a mystery hole in our minds,

this complex, heartbreak survival.

–Jane Mayhall

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Jane Mayhall

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Karassing

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The mystery of connectivity. The human kind, not Ted Stevens’ infamous series of tubes. While I am entertained by way cool tools like Facebook, it is the more esoteric pathways that exist outside the realm of linearity that are most compelling to me.

I’m often reminded of the whimsical distinction made by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle, a favorite from my “ingest everything,” book reading adolescence. He identifies two types of groups, the granfaloon and the karass. The granfaloon is an entity that has recognition but does not have real meaning. An example of a granfaloon in the book is being a Hoosier. One of his characters takes a trip with fellow Indianans. Other than the fact that they come from the same geographic region, they have no real significance in each other’s lives.

A different sort of grouping is a karass. These are the people whose lives are connected to your own in often mysterious yet profound ways. Usually they are not part of any of your more obvious granfalloons, but in the end it is their involvement in your life that has the greatest influence.

Recognizing members of your karass is not easy. But as you live your life, certain people just keep showing up. And how often do you meet someone who knows several of your friends, all from different walks of life? In this Vonnegutian view of things, the members of your karass are not just your soulmates or cotravelers. A karass is a soul group, and some of the members of yours may be there for reasons other than companionship and similar tastes in music, art and food.

When I was young I wanted to assemble a karass with those who shared my world view. It was highly exclusionary since I was serious about avoiding any contact with those types who thought Thomas Kinkade was a great painter, watched daytime soap operas, voted Republican or used margarine. As I’ve gotten older I’m come to appreciate the unique frisson that can happen with people who are decidedly outside my comfort zone, especially the ones who just keep showing up in my life. That’s part of the role that family members can play.

Carolyn Myss emphatically insists that it is important to thank your enemies. “It’s not about them. It’s about you.” She makes the case that it is the people we consider most irritating and adversarial who are incredibly valuable to us. They hold up a mirror that our confreres cannot. And as discomforting as that mirror can be, it can be life changing. If we let ourselves take a look.

The makeup of my karass has changed significantly since my younger years. Some of my karassmates are deeply intelligent, gifted and warmhearted. But I have some adversaries in there too. A more useful way to frame their involvement in my inner life is to ask, What are they here to teach me? What am I here to teach them?

Ah, the mystery of it all.

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Nizar Qabbani

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Friend and fellow artist George Wingate sent me this link to The Writer’s Almanac this morning. I can always count on George to spot the worthwhile and the memorable, with his eye and ear in full immersion with life. Thanks George, especially since Qabbani is one of those non-Western poets whose work lands fresh on your chest with all fours, taking your breath away with its undeniably moving account of a life spent laboring in a vineyard far from the one you know best.

I need more of this.

It’s the birthday of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani born in Damascus (1923). His father owned a chocolate factory, and he gave money to support the resistance of Syrian guerillas, so he was put in prison on various occasions. When Nizar Qabbani was 15, his older sister committed suicide rather than marry a man she did not love. After that, he devoted his writing to championing romantic love and urging women to break the constraining bonds of the traditional roles Arab society set out for them. He said: “Love in the Arab world is like a prisoner, and I want to set it free. I want to free the Arab soul, sense and body with my poetry.”

He published his first book of poetry, The Brunette Told Me (1944), when he was 19 years old. Its erotic poems created a controversy in conservative Syrian society. He went to law school and then became a diplomat, serving in Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut, Madrid, London, and China. He continued to write poetry. He wrote many love poems, like “My Lover Asks Me”:

My lover asks me:
“What is the difference between me and the sky?”
The difference, my love,
Is that when you laugh,
I forget about the sky.

His wife was killed in Beirut in 1982 by a bomb set off by pro-Iranian guerillas during the Lebanese civil war. He was devastated, and he blamed “the entire Arab world” for her death. Qabbani left Beirut, moved to Europe, and never remarried.

He continued to be a prolific poet, publishing about 40 volumes over the course of his 50 years of writing. He died from a heart attack at the age of 75.

He wrote:

Light is more important than the lantern,
The poem more important than the notebook,
And the kiss more important than the lips.
My letters to you
Are greater and more important than both of us.
They are the only documents
Where people will discover
Your beauty
And my madness.

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