February 2011

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Taking a Break


Top: Hong Kong; Bottom: Chimayo New Mexico

I am on the road for a few weeks, first in Hong Kong and then to Santa Fe for the opening of my show at Zane Bennett Gallery on February 25.

I will return to Slow Muse on March 2.


The landscape in Carson, New Mexico

Landscape And Soul

Though we should not speak about the soul,
that is, about things we don’t know,
I’m sure mine sleeps the day long,
waiting to be jolted, even jilted awake,
preferably by joy, but sadness also comes
by surprise, and the soul sings its songs.

And because no one landscape compels me,
except the one that’s always out of reach
(toward which, nightly, I go), I find myself
conjuring Breugel-like peasants cavorting
under a Magritte-like sky – a landscape
the soul, if fully awake, could love as its own.

But the soul is rumored to desire a room,
a chamber, really, in some far away outpost
of the heart. Landscape can be lonely and cold.
Be sweet to me, world.

–Stephen Dunn

I am posting this poem as an homage to my friend Carl Belz who, like Dunn, is a Renaissance man. Both Belz and Dunn played professional basketball as well as excelling as poets, art historians, professors and humanists.

And the sentiments are worthy ones. I’m particularly enjoying this line: “And because no one landscape compels me/except the one that’s always out of reach/(toward which, nightly, I go)”.

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Frank Auerbach, Reclining Head of Gerda Boehm, private collection

Over the fall months James Elkins, the prodigiously prolific writer about art, art history, criticism and art appreciation, wrote a series of pieces for the Huffington Post. (I wrote about his series here.) One of those articles as a title—Are Artists Bored By Their Work?—that is so provocative you can’t not read it.

Elkins starts by addressing a theme kindred to the founding principle of this blog—slow looking:

The philosopher Arthur Danto asked that I not fetishize slow looking. He pointed out that some works of modern art, like Duchamp’s urinal or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, do not ask to be looked at for hours and hours. A quick look, or even a glance, is right and appropriate. But I’d like to pursue slow looking, and think about it as carefully as I think it deserves. One way to pursue this subject is to ask how long it took the artist to make the work in the first place…It is interesting to be writing about slow looking and slow thinking in a setting like the Huffington Post, where news moves at such a breakneck pace, where you can jump from one post to another as quickly as a click of the mouse. We are all afflicted with a mild attention deficit disorder, and when comes to images, our flightiness is especially intense. We consume more images per lifetime, per day, and even per minute than any culture before us. Modern paintings often seem to have been made quickly, by comparison with the paintings of earlier centuries, and that seems to give us the license to look at them quickly–to consume them and move on.

Elkins draws a comparison between how much time it takes to make a work of art now and before the modernist era. He postulates that paintings took more time during the Renaissance because of the desire to represent the real world. Capturing a “highly ornamented world” takes more time to draw than the minimalism and single brush stroke styles so common in the postmodern era.

But were the representational artists of the Renaissance just a little bored with the tediousness of their task? Elkins points out that many Renaissance artists only painted heads and hands. The rest, painted by their tribe of apprentices. Which raises a reasonable question: Were they bored by the task of capturing the rest of nature? “How interested could Titian have been in all those trees?”

Contemporary art making practices are very different. Elkins again:

Modern painting, on the other hand, is said to be potentially interesting throughout, in every mark, at every inch. Frank Auerbach could not possibly have been bored when each brushstroke mattered so much. His best work is exemplary because he risked everything at every moment. Not a single mark is rote, habitual, or routine. Everything is contingent, as the art historian T. J. Clark says, and nothing is settled. Boredom is out of the question. A good work could not possibly be made by a bored artist.

It never occurred to me that it could be otherwise.

But let us not forget that boredom is actually a rather recent invention. It would be easy to treat it as a human trait that has always been with us, but that turns out to not be the case. According to Walter Benjamin, boredom was an invention of the middle classes that started around 1840. Up until then, no one was writing about it, complaining about it, suffering from it. “I don’t doubt that in the Renaissance people often found themselves at a loss about how to spend an afternoon, but no one was vexed by boredom, or in need of continuous distractions. Not a single Renaissance artist left a diary, or a letter, describing the appalling boredom of the long hours spent in the studio,” Elkins writes.

Boredom is now part of what we don’t like about our lives. It also speaks to the easily distracted, ADD-ish culture in which we live. And so many contemporary trends—social, technological, personal, behavioral—are feeding that proclivity. Committed slow looking—that deliberate and disciplined slowing down to really look at something—is just what many of us need to countermand all those distractions that constantly pull us away from center, away from the deeper connection. It may now need to be taught, like learning musical scales and fundamental ball handling skills. Any artist, contemporary or historical, needs and wants that kind of engagement.

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Ode to Compassion

When you are old,
re-spin me your beginnings

from their Greek and Irish
coordinates, unplot straight lines

of ancient made-up histories,
upend the stakes of claims in bindings

of your mother’s mother’s mother’s womb
cut and spilling life into care.

When you are grey,
recall me to the look of the father

for his daughters not your sons,
your pock-mocked map we carried fixed

into our futures, cardinal points worn
dim but steadfast ever in their tending to

of place, where time’s and the body’s limits
join the suffering together and to death.

When you are old and grey and full
of sleep, speak to me no more of forgiveness.

–Maureen Doallas, from her newly released book, Neruda’s Memoirs.

I have been a fan of Maureen Doallas for a number of years, primarily through her very popular blog, Writing Without Paper. I was so pleased when I heard that she would have a volume of her poetry published. Her work deserves to be read, thought about, engaged with and shared.

Maureen has one of those minds that can penetrate a variety of disciplines with amazing alacrity, passion and depth. In that sense she is a far cry from the isolated poet who is hermited away in her study. All her writing reflects the fullness with which she approaches life. Her knowledge of poetry is enhanced and deepened by her expertise in writing prose, visual art, politics, spirituality, philosophy, religious practices, travel, science, business, human potential. She is both fascinating and fascinated, a rare quality in one individual.

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Forms Change


Robert Plant

I call it “squinting”—you will have your own term. You’ve chosen a favorite musician, probably in your teen years, and the relationship grows through awkward phases…Along the way, you find yourself squinting to keep seeing what made you fall in love…In pop music, which is a worse deal for the aging than painting and fiction are, there can be a fair amount of effort involved.

This is the start of Sasha Frere-Jones’ review, Gut Check, of PJ Harvey’s latest release. (And PJ falls into that squinting category for me—some of her music was ecstasy embodied for me.) But when it comes to issues of doing your art and aging, pop music and ballet have to be two of the most youth-centric. Some would say they are youth-centric to a draconian degree.

But as my wise friend Sally Reed reminded me on the occasion of my birthday this week, forms change. It’s a mantra worthy of my studio wall as well as my bathroom mirror. And look at how even the forms of pop music and dance have stretched and morphed. How many aging rockers are touring and making music? It isn’t just superstars like Robert Plant, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCarthy and Bob Dylan—even Robbie Robertson, the Band heartthrob from the 70′s, just released a new album. In the words of Mitchell Stephens, “Once upon a time, these men reinvented what it meant to play rock-and-roll. Is it not possible that they might also be capable of reinventing what it means to be ‘old’ and still playing rock-and-roll? Age has, after all, done them a few favors. To begin with, it has given these fellows, none of whom has ever been saddled with a day job, years of practice. They’re better musicians than they were at 25, and better singers too.”

Another great moment recently on this same theme: Charles Lloyd, jazz veteran at 73, came out of semi-retirement to blow our minds. He recently performed at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge with his latest quartet, now playing with three extraordinary young musicians in their 30s—Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland and my favorite all time jazz pianist, Jason Moran.* It was an evening I will never forget.

And then there was the stunning moment at the end of the National Theater’s recent broadcast of Fela! when Bill T. Jones jumped up on stage and danced with the cast, shirtless. Like Mark Morris, Jones continues to engage us with the way his body can move.

All anecdotes worth considering. Yes, forms change. And sometimes what shows up surprises everybody.


Charles Lloyd Quartet

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* For a list of my many blog posts about Jason Moran, go here.

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R. Buckminster Fuller

Content-rich theater is hard to do. Tom Stoppard is probably our most exemplary contemporary playwright of that genre. In so many of his plays, ideas and intellectual constructs take on theatrical forms, functioning almost as characters in the story. The Stoppard experience is deeply layered and yet neither didactic nor instructional. Which is why you (OK, I should say me) can watch the Coast of Utopia trilogy in marathon mode (7 hours) and still be longing to return the next day and do it all over again.

A. R. T.’s current offering at the Loeb Theater is a content-rich theatrical venture as well and one that I would recommend to anyone in the Boston area who has been able to dig their car out of the snowdrifts or is lucky enough to live within the reach of the T. R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, the long overdue homage to an extraordinary thinker, is performed as a one man play. Thomas Derrah is an uncanny channel for the quirky mannerisms and squaresville attire that seduces you into the playful, provocative and profound world of Bucky Fullerama. He was a man who spent a lifetime seeing things upsidedown and insideout, of bucking (he was well named!) against established norms—including his dismissal from Harvard not once but twice—and unpacking and debunking everyday assumptions. His world view, startling and mind-stretching even back in the 60s when startling and mind-stretching were the norm, feels prescient and timely given our current time and troubles. The production is chock full of mind teasers and provocations, delivered through words and a few well placed and expertly executed visual aids. But like Stoppard’s plays, D. W. Jacob’s production does not feel didactic or intellectually detached, and Derrah holds the sold out audience rapt.

I heard Bucky speak twice when I was a teenager. I was so taken by what I heard that I read everything he wrote and carried his ideas around for the rest of my life. Some viewed him as just plain off the grid, one of those types I affectionately refer to as “scientists gone galactic.” He was cut out of a different piece of cosmic cloth from his bureaucratic, gatekeeper cohorts, no question. But the course of time has taken us closer to his viewpoint than most of his detractors back in the 50s and 60s would have ever imagined possible.

And in keeping with a theme that has been running through my posts here over the last few months, Bucky’s life is another example of lastingness, of someone who was at his best in the second half of his life. His story is full of early failures. At one point in his 30s. he had been thwarted so profoundly that he decided to stop speaking altogether. He wanted every word he uttered to be authentic, defensible, carefully honed. So for two years he said very little. Slowly he reshaped and reclaimed a voice for himself. And once he did find his pitch perfect tuning, he couldn’t be stopped. Both of the Bucky lectures I attended went on for four hours without stopping. He was in his 70s at that time, but the energy he gave off was electric and irresistible.

Recently I asked my college-aged friends if they knew who he was, and almost all of them said no. It is high time to bring Bucky back for another age and another generation.

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Memoiramania


Memoirist extraordinaire Mary Karr (Photo: Todd Plitt, USA TODAY)

TMI. It’s like drinking: Some can handle a lot, and some are flattened after just one glass.

Meanwhile we are living in an age of rampant confessionalism, memoiring gone viral, with more blogs than there are humans and way too much information being flung at us about the lives of all those famous people. So it is easy to be in sympathy with the opening salvo of Neil Genzlinger’s review of a new crop of memoirs that appeared in the Sunday Times Book Review:

A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.

There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.

But then came our current age of oversharing, and all heck broke loose. These days, if you’re planning to browse the “memoir” listings on Amazon, make sure you’re in a comfortable chair, because that search term produces about 40,000 hits, or 60,000, or 160,000, depending on how you execute it.

I am not a story teller but the maker of non-narrative visual art. As a result I don’t have a professional stake in story telling in all of its many forms. But like you, I too love a great tale, the seduction of cinema, novels that whisk us far from our own lives and into the throes of someone else’s adventure. And masterful, compelling memoirs have been written of course, like anything by Mary Karr.*

But as Genzlinger points out (with no mincing of words):

That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir. This maxim, which was inspired by an unrewarding few hours with “Dis­aster Preparedness,” by Heather Havri­lesky, is really a response to a broader problem, a sort of grade inflation for life experiences. A vast majority of people used to live lives that would draw a C or a D if grades were being passed out — not that they were bad lives, just bland. Now, though, practically all of us have somehow gotten the idea that we are B+ or A material; it’s the “if it happened to me, it must be interesting” fallacy. And so Havrilesky…spends 239 pages dragging us through what seems to be an utterly ordinary childhood in North Carolina…The rest belongs on a blog.

That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir. That might make a worthwhile fridge magnet. Enough already?

Regarding his comment that “the rest belongs on a blog,” I will make the argument that may sound self serving but is still legitimate: there are blogs and then there are blogs. I spend enough time on content-rich sites where the personal is kept to a mere ornament to know how valuable the blogosphere is for the idea-rich, provocative reading I enjoy. But maybe we do need a cordoned off section, a blogobadlands where the tell-all, the “I’ll listen to your story if you’ll listen to mine,” the “my life is really meaningful and I’m going to tell you all about it!” types can gather, a place where it is agreed that your story is your primary currency and the swapping of personal anecdotes is the norm.

Finding a respectable middle ground between coldly detached, intellectual content and the warm and fuzzy personal is a Maginot Line that is constantly moving. This shift ican be seen both in written expression as well as in our social norms. Well researched, factual books such as Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier includes just enough of the personal to keep the reader in a warm and welcoming space. Angier never overshares but finds a pitch perfect blend of fact and her own experiences. It used to be that no therapist would allow any first person anecdoting to play a part in therapy. That concept sounds oddly outdated and unduly formalized based on today’s more natural, conversational, coaching-esque therapy styles.

In the spirit of Kevin Kelly and Stephen Johnson’s claim (I referenced the original comment here) that you have to wade through a lot of crap to get to the really good stuff, I’d say the same may be true with memoirs and the overly personal. Story telling is important. Most of us don’t do it with artfulness. But for those who do, they deserve our time and attention.

Of the four books Genzlinger reviews, only one of them emerges with a thumbs up: Johanna Adorjan’s An Exclusive Love, a “spare, beautiful exploration of why her grandparents killed themselves.” And his point is well taken:

If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it…what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery. Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.

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*On the blog, 100 Memoirs, Shirley Hershey Showalter has compiled a list of Mary Karr’s favorite memoirs. This is useful since IMHO Karr is the contemporary master of the form.

1. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
2. Richard Wright, Black Boy
3. Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost
4. Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That
5. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
6. John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me
7. Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life
8. Michael Herr, Dispatches
9. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
10. Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes

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