August 2010

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Annunciation

Even if I don’t see it again — nor ever feel it
I know it is — and that if once it hailed me
it ever does –

And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as towards a place, but it was a tilting
within myself,

as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where
it isn’t — I was blinded like that — and swam
in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so
specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that.

–Marie Howe

Last weekend my son Clayton and his beautiful partner Mona had the most extraordinary wedding. My body is back home but parts of me are still unaccounted for, shot into the astral space/time continuum. So I’m in surrender, feeling those errant bits fly past, joyfully exploring their circumambience.

Maybe when the henna disappears from my hand they will return to the roost, to the patterned familiar of my consciousness.

Yeah, it really was THAT good.

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Islands

O for God’s sake
they are connected
underneath

They look at each other
across the glittering sea
some keep a low profile

Some are cliffs
The Bathers think
islands are separate like them

–Muriel Rukeyser

I found this fresh and invigorating poem on Intercapillary/Space where I also found the following succinct commentary by Edmund Hardy:

The imagined isle, dream of absolute personal law, the romance of a self – no doubt washed away in a storm – re-selving without other people all around as mirror deflectors and absorbers to cause that self to jitter in a Brownian motion, the dream of being internal from the start. Enough of those dreams; underneath, there is the sea-floor, in profile, seamounts and guyouts, the oceanic lithosphere moving away from mid-oceanic ridges. Think, then, not in islands but in oceans; a useful enough slogan although, swimming around, we may find that “the island is also that towards which one drifts”*.

* Deleuze, “Desert Islands” in Desert Islands and Other Texts

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A Maul for Bill and Cindy’s Wedding

Swung from the toes out,
Belly-breath riding on the knuckles,
The ten-pound maul lifts up,
Sails in an arc overhead,
And then lifts you!

It floats, you float,
For an instant of clear far sight—
Eye on the crack in the end-grain
Angle of the oak round
Stood up to wait to be split.

The maul falls—with a sigh—the wood
Claps apart
and lies twain—
In a wink. As the maul
Splits all, may

You two stay together.

–Gary Snyder

Two poems to commemorate the wedding on Saturday of my son Clayton and my soon to be daughter Mona. Yes, and yes: You two stay together.

I’ll be back online next week.


Clayton and Mona, freshly engaged in Boston


Engagement party in Charleston West Virginia

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Sensuality afoot at the Metropolitan Museum

The gift that just keeps giving…I don’t think there is a single page of my copy of Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin that isn’t marked up and annotated. Although Pallasmaa is an architect and writing primarily about that metier, his book is full of passages that are a parallel reflection of my own views on the visual arts (and painting in particular.)

I hope my ongoing reference to his work is of interest to some of you too.

Beyond architecture, contemporary culture at large drifts towards a distancing, a kind of chilling de-sensualisation and de-eroticisation of the human relation to reality. Painting and sculpture also seem to be losing their sensuality; instead of inviting a sensory intimacy, contemporary works of art frequently signal a distancing rejection of sensuous curiosity and pleasure. These works of art speak to the intellect and to the conceptualising capacities instead of addressing the senses and the undifferentiated embodied responses. the ceaseless bombardment of unrelated imagery leads only to a gradual emptying of images of their emotional content. Images are converted into endless commodities manufactured to postpone boredom; humans in turn are commodified, consuming themselves nonchalantly without having the courage or even the possibility of confronting their very existential reality. We are made to live in a fabricated dream world.

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Fully Engaged


Architect and author Juhani Pallasmaa

A few days ago my friend Janet alerted me to an appreciation of Frank Kermode in the New York Times (an excerpt is posted here.) She also left a comment on an earlier post about Dorothea Lasky that asked this question: “I am curious about what your response might be to V. Klinkenborg’s remembrance of Frank Kermode in today’s NYTimes. He included this provocative quote from Kermode: ‘To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character.’ Hmmmm.”

Hmmmm indeed. My response to her was this:

As for that quote… It put me in that deeply ambivalent place about art making, something I am dealing with more now than ever. So a part of me says OK, yeah, you’re right Frank, it IS essentially frivolous. But another part asks, does anything else feel this authentic? And look at what survives time to speak about a culture once it is gone. I am of two minds too much these days.

Several days later, and that two-mindedness has thankfully dissolved. I am not feeling that ambivalence. Maybe that feeling of “e) all of the above” is just another symptom of the micro crises—or periodic periods of drought—that seem to be a new aspect of my art making terrain of late. Right now I am more aligned with this quote from Juhani Pallasmaa in Eyes of the Skin:

The sense of self, strengthened by art and architecture, allows us to engage fully in the mental dimensions of dream, imagination and desire. Buildings and cities provide the horizon for the understanding and confronting of the human existential condition. Instead of creating mere objects of visual seduction, architecture relates, mediates and projects meanings. The ultimate meaning of any building is beyond architecture; it directs our consciousness back to the world and towards our own sense of self and being. Significant architecture makes us experience ourselves as complete embodied and spiritual beings. in fact, this is the great function of all meaningful art.

Allowing all of the sensations—dark and light, frivolous and essential—to flow through: isn’t that being fully engaged in the “mental dimensions of dream, imagination and desire”?

No Frank, I’m not signing up for the “art is frivolous” argument today. I’ll pass. For now.

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Bluefin tuna, one of many ocean fish at risk

Book updates:

Dorothea Lasky‘s most recent book, Black Life, is reviewed in the Boston Globe today. I just recently discovered Lasky and am a fan of both Poetry is Not a Project and Awe. In this review Michael Brodeur speaks to the contrasts at play in her work:

But where “Awe” balanced Lasky’s fascinations with the spiritual self with a caution to “be scared of yourself,” the poems of “Black Life” stay fixed in a darker stare, charting death, desire, jealousy, loss, love, and loneliness with equal parts emotional warmth and factual chill. All the while, Lasky’s mix of stark truth and playful affect effectively foregrounds the former…Though Lasky’s language is simple its often stark clarity is also the source of each line’s force. And in “Style is Joy,” she takes care we know that fidelity to the unpracticed is central to her practice: “every poem full of blood and guts/ Must be stylized to be so.”

Lewis Hyde, author of two books that have touched me deeply , The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, has published a new one, Common as Air. From the review in the New York Times by Robert Darnton:

Hyde, the author of “The Gift” (1983), a defense of the noncommercial aspects of art, does not merely cull the works of the founding fathers for quotations. He pitches his argument at a level where historians and political philosophers have contributed most to our understanding of intellectual history. Instead of treating the ideas of the founders as self-contained units of meaning, he explores their interconnections and shows how they shared a common conceptual frame…Hyde builds his argument by telling stories, and he tells them well. His book brims with vignettes, which may be familiar but complement one other in ways that produce original insights.

Paul Greenberg is the son of an old friend of mine, Harvey Greenberg. Paul’s latest book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, is personal and extremely well timed. I have seen glowing reviews in a plethora of publications. I’ve just started reading his account of the vanishing population of four iconic North Atlantic fish: salmon, sea bass, cod and bluefin tuna. With a son who also approaches the ocean and all creatures therein as the earth’s most sacred domain, I am approaching Greenberg’s book as prescient essential reading.

From a review by Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times:

Didactic — however worthy — is not much fun. Ecological and planet-saving literature tends to argue for the essential. The discoveries, the questions, the issues it raises must exercise us. And exercise is an excellent thing. Only, in a contemporary contentiousness, that pits puritans against know-nothings, rather excluding play.

So much as preface to Paul Greenberg’s “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.” He deals in weighty though never ponderous detail with such matters as the despoliation of our seas by industrial overfishing and the tension between the need to feed our world and to preserve it. He writes with evocative passion about the individual animal wildness of a bluefin tuna, a king salmon, an ocean-spanning cod.

More unusually, he goes on to convey what can only be called the fisherman’s happiness: part battle, part sense of primeval freedom in a constrained world. At 13, he got his hands on a used dinghy and taught himself to navigate and fish: ” Long Island Sound still felt to me like wilderness — a place to freely search out and capture wild game. I thought of the sea as a vessel of desires and mystery, a place of abundance I did not need to question.”

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Frank Kermode died this week at the age of 90. His output was staggering. I’ve only read a small sampling of a body of work that is wide ranging as well as insightful.

In her appreciation of Kermode in the New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg describes Kermode’s literary modus operandi. It struck a chord. The same could describe a strategy for navigating the visual arts.

In my years in academia, I had watched the study of literature go down any number of rabbit holes — chasing after theory and ideology and system. The very point of reading and talking about what we read seemed to have been lost in a kind of strangulating self-seriousness and alienation. That’s where Kermode came in.

He was drawn to the entanglements of the text and its rational mysteries rather than some scaffold of theory. In his many books and essays, he protected the reader’s freedom to be interested in whatever was interesting. That meant writing a prose that was never wholly academic and over the years became more and more open to the intersection of literature and the lives we’re actually living.

Thanks to Janet for alerting me to Klinkenborg’s appreciation.

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Whatever you Paid for That Sweater, It was Worth It

Be scared of yourself
The real self
Is very scary.
It is a man
But more importantly
The man is tall
And is everything in you that is an absolute reverse of all your actions.
In you he will do things and in you no one will know the difference
Still the honey and the herb, the bright lights.

The piece of fiscal fish, the lemons,
The blank above with stars will praise you
But he, he puts his legs over frail women
And tries to get to the thing they won’t give up.
Just as true loneliness gets to the very real thing in you
Scary or not, is part man for all it is wanting and can’t get
To the place where it has married woman, it sits
In a sea of lemons, its tail dragged bloody across the floor.

Still, here I do not speak of mutilation.
The real self is not muddy, it is pure
Still here it is a thing of murder
The self comes off itself and murders the woman in its path
Her skirts effortlessly careening back there up into the stars.

–Dorothea Lasky

This poem is from Lasky’s volume, Awe. I’ve written here about another of Lasky’s publications, Poetry is Not a Project. Her work is new to me, but I’m digging in and loving the spade work of discovery. This one grabbed me right around the midsection on first reading. It traces many of my personal themes, and does so deftly. Phrases from this poem are still singing inside, like “fiscal fish,” and “it sits/In a sea of lemons, its tail dragged bloody across the floor.”

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Another book that sounds like it is right in my sweet spot: Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship, by Yael Reisner. Ah, beauty… It continues to be an issue of dispute in every contemporary métier—visual art, music, literature. This topic continues to engage, divide, provoke, perplex.

I know a bit about the constituencies on this topic within fine arts, but I appreciated finding an article by Jay Merrick in The Independent that drew the architectural battle lines. Given my current interest in the writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, I was not surprised to see his name show up in Merrick’s lay of the land:

The troubled relationship between architecture and beauty is being re-exposed at just the right moment. For at least a decade, the life has been squeezed out of potentially fine architecture by developers or clients who talk the enlightened talk, but walk the value-engineered walk. But are buildings like Will Alsop’s the Public in West Bromwich beautiful or ugly? Is there anything about the architecture of Thom Mayne or Hernan Alonso Diaz that even triggers the idea of beauty? And what about Wolf Prix’s extraordinary BMW Welt building – is it a nightmare, or pure heaven?

Let’s set the scene. In the blue corner, the visionary American architect, Lebbeus Woods, who says that aesthetics is rarely discussed in schools of architecture because “it’s still a legacy of the Jewish-Protestant ethic. You can take Calvinism as an extreme example, but generally all Protestant religions are very anti-visual and very anti-aesthetic”. Hence, Modernism’s purified, quasi-socialist Detroit production-line mantra, form-is-function. “Before Modernism,” adds Woods, “architects were just decorators.”

In the red corner, one of architecture’s most important historian-philosophers, Juhani Pallasmaa. He deplores current architectural cravings for “novelty based on a shallow understanding of artistic phenomena”, and delivers a crisp left uppercut to doubters by quoting the poet Joseph Brodsky: “The purpose of evolution is beauty.”

And somewhere in the middle – let’s call it the royal purple corner, though not necessarily By Appointment – are architects such as the classicist Francis Terry, who started a recent essay in The Architects’ Journal with this miserablist sentence: “Given all the terrible things about life, it is sometimes easy to hate the world.” How about: “Given all the beautiful things about life, it’s very easy to love the world”?

What a palaver. Faced with the threat of beauty, architects tend to default to particular design trenches, or utter that duplicitously exclusive word, taste. Rather than looking through cracks in their avoidance of beauty as a creative motive or perception, architects Polyfilla them with blurring obstructions; they’re shadow-boxing in a Plato’s Cave where beauty can never quite be experienced as real. Just as super-articulate philosophers are often regarded with suspicion by colleagues embalmed in infinite chains of hair-splitting, so too do most architects prefer the safety of a bunker of clichés rather than risk exposure to the languages of cultural exploration.

More on this once I’ve actually read the book (which is on its way from the UK where it costs half as much as it does in the US for some reason…)

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Doubters


Crossfield 1 by Jack Tworkov (Collection of Ms. Beatrice Perry)

This has been a summer of enjoying the art reviews of Sebastian Smee in the Boston Globe. (Before coming to the Globe, Smee has wrote for The Australian, the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Art Newspaper and Modern Painters. He is also the author of a book on Lucian Freud.) Boston is lucky to have him.

Jack Tworkov’s mark makingly rich, expressionistic minimalism was very influential on my development as a young artist. I have always appreciated the quality of his hand, the way he approached the surface. But as Smee points out in his review of the Tworkov show at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Tworkov’s legacy has been slighter than he deserved:

When a talented artist ends up being regarded by posterity as less than great, it’s often because he or she never came to be identified with a single style. At least that’s the excuse that’s often proffered. The implied critique of some who are remembered as great — that they allowed their creativity to be reduced to the factory-style production of signature images — hits a nerve: Think of Mark Rothko’s endlessly repeated rectangular lozenges, Clyfford Still’s jagged shapes, Barnett Newman’s “zips,’’ and so on. How many vertical strips against monochrome backgrounds are needed to make a point?

I was struck by the parallels with the isolationistic “one man movement” phenomenon that was Charles Burchfield (who I wrote about here) when I read this assessment…

Although Tworkov is categorized as an Abstract Expressionist and treated Willem de Kooning as a mentor, Tworkov wasn’t wired like the rest of that crew. He was more willing to embrace doubt, to question himself. He also avoided the bombastic and often self destructive behavior that was so prevalent among many of his peers. There is a stepped away quality to Tworkov, in his work and in his approach to art. Or maybe it was a form of humility. Whatever term is used for that particular quality, its meaningfulness in the evolution of his work is very compelling to me.

Smee highlights several examples of Tworkov’s willingness to open up to the vulnerability that is art making:

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“Iconoclastic rebellion was never Tworkov’s bent,’’ writes the art historian David Anfam in an essay in the show’s catalog. Tworkov himself was adamant that “Everyone who is an artist does it at the expense of being a hero.’’

***
“My hope is to confront the picture without a ready technique or a prepared attitude,’’ [Tworkov] wrote, “to have no program and, necessarily then, no preconceived style. To paint no Tworkovs.’’

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Tworkov’s interest in expressing himself verbally never left him. His journals (selected and edited by Mira Schor in a Yale University Press volume last year) contain some of the most eloquent and insightful writings of the period. They are blessedly free, moreover, of the bombast and prolixity of artists like Robert Motherwell, Rothko, and Newman.

“The artist who acts as if he could have conceived his art by himself, sealed off from other artists and their work and their thoughts,’’ he wrote in 1958, “is stupid — he merely tries to conform to the idiotic romantic image of the artist as a primeval energy, as a demi-urge.’’

***
“As if revolting against the sogginess of my feelings,’’ he wrote around this time, “I’ve been trying to make a series of light, very trivial, almost facetious paintings.’’

***
But his painting, he felt, “had reached a stage where its forms had become predictable and automatically repetitive. Besides, the exuberance that was a condition of the birth of this painting could not be maintained without pretense forever.’’

Where Pollock’s response to a similar apprehension seems to have been a steep increase in alcohol intake and a suicidal car trip, Tworkov was able to switch to a lower gear. And so around the time he took up a teaching post at Yale (where he transformed the art program into one of the best in the country) he started making works that were based on straight-lined geometries, especially grids.

He liked, he said, the sense this kind of painting gave him of a connection with “something that exists besides, outside, myself.’’ It was “less hypocritical,’’ he felt, to paint this way than to fake the “ecstatic self-expression that a more romantic art calls for.’’

***
Tworkov kept painting compelling works into the 1980s. According to his friend, the poet Stanley Kunitz, he admitted near the end of his life to having “misgivings about my present work.’’

Well, he was nothing if not candid. But misgivings and doubt are animating. They put Tworkov, at any rate, in the same company as that other great doubter, his hero, Cézanne, about whom Picasso famously said, “It is his anxiety that forces our interest.’’

Doubters. They are often the ones who will let the story be told with more honesty, with more self-effacing candor. And in that sense it is an energy that I am drawn to deeply.

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Homage to Ucello #4, Anna Hepler (Photo: Courtesy of Karin Thomas)

I have written about Sebastian Smee’s review of Anna Hepler’s show at the Portland Museum in an earlier post but there’s another passage in that article that has continued to hold my attention. Hepler’s approach to her work and to teaching runs close to my own views, and is worth sharing here.

Meghan Brady, an artist and a friend, describes Hepler as “a question-asker and a seeker. She’s not satisfied by taking things at face value. Instead, she’s always turning the issue at hand upside-down and inside out in an attempt to see it from a fresh vantage point.’’ Hepler adds, “I do like that idea of really going with something until you reach a conclusion, or a point of exhaustion.’’

And on the subject of teaching, I found commonality in Hepler’s conversation with Smee:

She insists she would have answered questions about the sources of her work quite differently a year, or even six months ago. Why the change?

“It had a lot to do with leaving academia,’’ she says. Hepler gave up her teaching post at Bowdoin about a year ago, having taught there for six years on a part-time basis. She was given the chance to teach full time on a tenure track but, she says, “I knew I didn’t want that.’’

The pressure on her as a teacher to be didactic and to “uphold the holy mantle of authority’’ made her increasingly uncomfortable. “It pollutes,’’ she says, “and for me there’s a kind of hypocrisy involved.’’

Now she can focus, she says, on maintaining “a risk-taking state of mind’’ and on “really living something, not making work that is about something.’’

“If you’re going to embark on this process,’’ she explains, “you have to rely 100 percent on intuition.’’

That’s just about the best summation of my own resistance to teaching. While many of my friends have figured out how to do it—how to teach and be a maker—it was never an approach that rang true for me. Not every artist signs up for the “100 percent intuition” path, and perhaps, in the spirit of Robert Benchley’s famous truism*, that is the operative deliminator. But this passage from Charles Burchfield’s journals (my paean to his current show at the Whitney is here) fits well in this conversation: “The subconscious mind seemed to be in complete control—and I did unpremeditated things which later turned out to be exactly right.”

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*Robert Benchley, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, once stated this truism: The world is divided into two groups—those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t.

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