August 2011

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Patsy Rodenburg

Patsy Rodenburg, acting coach extraordinare and author of a number of books including one of my favorites, The Second Circle, has a six minute video posted on YouTube. This short piece could be viewed daily, a quick reminder of how to constellate your day. Her message is simple: Show up. Be present. Be in the moment. Engaged. Connected. “I think we are losing our presence as a society,” she warns.

Yes, her focus is on acting and actors. About how they are important in society because they are trained to be in the moment, now. To stay in that “second circle” which is that place of being present. In this clip Rodenburg tells the story of a very successful woman whose son committed suicide and then shared this insight with Rodenburg: “The only people who could deal with me in my loss were actors. They were the only ones who knocked on the door, came in and were present with me.”

My hermetic life in the studio is a far cry from being on stage, but Rodenburg’s message has a universality that inspires: “If you cannot get present, you cannot succeed.”

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Richard Tuttle’s matrix of drawings on display at the Portland Museum; closer view

The inimitable Vogels (of Herb and Dorothy fame and featured in earlier posts here and here) have initiated Vogel 50×50, a program that has placed 2500 pieces from their collection in individual museums in each of the 50 states. Fifty Works for Fifty States is unique for a number of reasons but particularly because participating institutions must agree to hang all 50 pieces together.

From the Portland Musuem of Art‘s description:

Herbert Vogel, a postal clerk, and Dorothy Vogel, a librarian, managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history with very modest means. After more than 40 years of collecting art, they decided to start giving the collection away. The Museum has been the recipient of 50 works from a national gifts program entitled The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States. The best-known works in the Vogel Collection are examples of minimal and conceptual art, but they also include pieces of a figurative and expressionist nature. Primarily a collection of drawings, the collection also includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, and prints by artists mainly working in the United States. This exhibition will feature a selection of the works from the Vogel gift which will include work by artists such as Will Barnet, Richard Tuttle, Claudia De Monte, and Steve Keister.

Before I saw the installation at the Portland Museum of Art last week, I regarded the requirement for 50 as a bit quirky. (Which is not surprising given the Vogels—both quirky AND inspired.) But after having seen the show I regard that stipulation as right on. The works are for the most part intimately sized (the Vogels only bought pieces that would fit in their small Queens apartment), so the impact is collective in the truest sense. Viewing only 10 or 20 at a time would just not give you the panoramic sense of what makes the Vogel aesthetic special. 50 is a good number. Solid.

Besides the Tuttle matrix pictured above, several other pieces caught my eye in the Portland show:

Michael Golberg (1924-2007)

Barbara Schwartz (1949-2006)

Claudia Demonte

Lisa Bradley

The Vogel story continues to astound, amaze, delight. While their financial resources were limited, their intensity was laser-like. If only they could be cloned.

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The storm chez moi: One tree was lost on our street, and a downed branch in the Hall’s Pond Sanctuary

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Years of solitude had taught him that, in one’s memory, all days tend to be the same, but that there is not a day, not even in jail or in the hospital, which does not bring surprises, which is not a translucent network of minimal surprises.

–Jorge Luis Borges*

Our encounter with Irene here in Brookline MA was minimal. A tree fell across the street, and the Town of Brookline had it sawed and gone in an hour. Branches, some of them large, fell in the quiet pond sanctuary across the road. But no power outages here, unlike friends in Virginia and North Carolina.

While I am not trivializing the damage and discomfort caused by the storm, it did bring its own translucent network of minimal surprises: The reassuring solidarity that comes when everyone is participating in a larger-than-life event; the quality of light when the storm finally passes through (Is it an ionizing of the air? There is something is different about the way light is reflected post storm); A day spent slowly and mostly indoors; The disruptive but sober reminder that we are in fact tiny creatures on this planet. Perhaps we should consider ourselves just guests here.

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*Thanks once again to Whiskey River for this great quote.

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Marin Island, Small Point Maine, by John Marin

One of my first memories of moving to the East Coast from a childhood in California was discovering Maine. My first 10 years as an expatriated West Coaster were spent in Manhattan, but almost every summer I made the trek Down East on my way to a friend’s island in Canada.

My love of that landscape was instantaneous. It felt familiar. Looking back, I think that was because it shared some of the ruggedness of Point Lobos near Monterey, a favorite childhood spot. (During a recent visit to Point Lobos, I discovered that a number of movies set in Maine and New England were actually filmed at Point Lobos. It was, after all, significantly closer to Hollywood.)

But my attachment to what is wild and yet welcoming is no surprise and actually rather predictable. Many artists have had a love affair with Maine: Winslow Homer at Prout’s Neck, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Randall Davey and Leon Kroll at Monhegan Island; Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley and Robert Laurent in Ogunquit, among many other artists and locations.

But what I didn’t realize is that there is also a rich history of artists in and around Small Point, the place I love most of all. Thanks to a fascinating show currently on view at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine Moderns: Art in Seguinland, 1900–1940, I can add the area around the Seguin Lighthouse—thus the name—that includes Phippsburg, Georgetown, Small Point and Robinhood Cove to the list of important early 20th century artist communities.

Many of the artists whose works were being shown at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery (one time husband to Georgia O’Keefe) in New York ended up coming to the area along the coast outside of Bath. Some built homes, some were guests. But the list is impressive: John Marin, Mardsen Hartley, Max Weber, Marguerite and William Zorach, Gaston Lachaise, Gertrude Käsebier, Paul Strand, F. Holland Day, Clarence White. And who knew that the small island that sits in Small Point Harbor, an island I’ve looked at innumerable times, was actually the home of Marin at one point? Many of the houses built by these visiting artists during that period are still standing.

This show, along with John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury exhibit that highlights work from his later years living at Cape Split, Maine, solidifies the significant—and often understated—role the unique Maine landscape has played in the development of American modern art. One more reason for its special place in my life.

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Something does happen in the body when you are truly out of digital reach. No cellphones, computers or televisions. And in that digital silence, life takes on a different texture. In the splendid isolation of the Maine coast, worries and concerns begin unpacking and gently floating off your bow. In the words of Yeats, peace does come dropping slow.

That setting is also the perfect backdrop to what turned out to be our ongoing discussion of decision fatigue. Prompted by John Tierney‘s New York Times Magazine excerpt from his soon-to-be-released book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, written with Roy F. Baumeister, this was our conversational theme all week.

Tierney explores new research in the personal cost of making decisions, little ones as well as big ones. The results are sobering for all of us who live in the distraction-rich, small decision-ridden world of 21st century America. These findings scientize what many of us have observed in ourselves and others.

From Tierney’s piece:

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further). Like those dogs in the experiment, ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs. Like the depleted parole judges, they become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.

There are many behaviors that we have adopted that are decision energy zappers. Spending time online. Weddings. (Tierney describes them as Decision Hell Week.) Shopping. The option-rich abundance that we have come to view as a sign of advanced culture. (What? That only comes in 8 colors?)

He also shares a valuable insight into the implications of these findings on the perpetual poor: “This sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.”

And what does the body need most to replenish itself from decision fatigue? Glucose. Those candy bars at the check out counter are there for a reason. Your resistance is low after shopping, and you need a glucose hit to continue on.

In his concluding comments, Tierney offers up a profile of the optimal decision maker:

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

What are the implications of these findings on art making? Well, let’s start with how many decisions are involved in a single painting. The number exceeds what most non-artists would expect. (I am reminded of the line from a 90 year old Agnes Martin, delivered to a visiting reporter after her morning session in the studio: “Painting is hard work!”) Applying these findings to the life of an artist or maker, certain good work habits emerge as invaluable—a regular schedule for working, staying conscious of when the body and willpower are depleted, the importance of taking breaks. And perhaps I can now view my need for a bite of chocolate around 3pm as a righteous cry from the body for glucose reinforcements.

Great article. Available to New York Times subscribers here.

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Taking a Break


Small Point, Maine

What does it mean to be connected to a particular place on earth? I have felt a peculiar and personal pull at very specific locations all over the world, and I hold those landscapes as part of my distributed self.

Small Point Maine is one of those constellated identities for me. My own New England version of Yeats’ Innisfree*. I am grateful whenever I can be there, consumed into its very particular kind of unbridledness.

I’ll be back at the end of the week.

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* For anyone who doesn’t know this legendary poem, it has been memorized and immortalized by millions, myself included.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

–William Butler Yeats

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The Peabody Essex Museum’s exhibit Ripple Effect, the Art of H2O is targeted for the children and families crowd and is installed in the Art & Nature Center. But this is a show I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Earth Art, Land Art, Eco-Art, Art in Nature, Environmental Art. Both visual and experiential, this exhibit is worthy of several visits. I’m definitely going back. It is up through April 30, 2012.

A few artist highlights:

Jim Deneven

Denevan and a crew are videotaped while creating a large scale work on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal in Siberia. A spiral of Fibonaci curve circles exapnd out from an origin of 18″ to several miles in diameter.

Deneven has worked with sand, earth, water/ice and food. The obvious comparison is Andy Goldsworthy, but Denevan has his own take on large scaled works. It is a bit more cerebral and linear but also very compelling and mesmerizing.

Denevan’s website is here.

Shinichi Maruyama

A suite of Maruyama’s Water Sculptures are on exhibit. Large scaled and hauntingly beautiful.

Maruyama’s website is here.

Simon Christen

Christen’s time lapse view of fog moving over the Bay Area, Unseen Sea, is a loop you will want to watch repeatedly. I have had a long relationship with fog (having grown up in the Bay Area) but I have never seen it or felt it quite like this.

Christen’s website is here. (You can watch Unseen Sea from his site.)

Georgie Friedman


From Friedman’s Flight Series

Friedman has done a full series that captures images taken from high-altitude balloon flights. The matrix of photographs offers a surprisingly compelling variety of color, abstraction, dark and light, dimensionality.

Friedman’s website is full of images.

The work on display in the show is a smaller scale approach reminiscent of Spencer Finch’s well known homage to the colors of the Hudson River, permanently installed on the High Line in New York.


Finch’s installation on the High Line

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One morning beginning to notice
which thoughts pull the spirit out of the body, and which return it.
How quietly the abandoned body keens,
like a bonsai maple surrounded by her dropped leaves.
Rain or objects call the forgotten back.
The droplets’ placid girth and weight. The table’s lack of ambition.
How strange it is that longing, too, becomes a small green bud,
thickening the vacant branch-length in early March.

–Jane Hirschfield

I’m on a Hirschfield run, reading After as well as Nine Gates, her essays on poetry. This morning this poem just stayed on, lingering long.


Petit Interieur a la table de Marbre Ronde

Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe has been doing a series all summer called Frame by Frame where he focuses his attention on one particular work of art. These pieces are brief but insightful, a serialized reminder that Boston is full of masterpieces hanging in permanent collections.

Yesterday’s piece featured a painting by Matisse in the Worcester Museum. Smee’s titled his response to Petit Interieur, “Ease belies the effort”, and his commentary on this later Matisse (it was painted in 1947) confronts the mystery that is at the core of Matisse’s oeuvre. His signatory effortlessness was anything but effortless. That ease and flow was hard won.

From Smee’s article:

There’s a great big metaphysical joke at the core of the genius that was Henri Matisse, and it has to do with the idea of work, of labor, of effort.

Matisse, in his full-throated maturity, represents the opposite of these things. His work stands for ease and effortless beauty, and for an almost total absence of pressure – the pressure of careful outlines and fastidiously filled-in paint and, by extension, of life itself, with its repressed desires, irreconcilable demands, and emotional heavy-lifting…

The painting is about conferring balance and proportion on rapturous sensuality – dizzying beauty with no diminution on either side.

Matisse was in fact one of history’s great pressurized personalities. Habituated to harsh criticism and to countering such criticism with feats of the most strenuous concentration, he was prone to panic attacks, insomnia, nosebleeds, chronic anxiety, illness.

It cost him a lifetime of unstinting strain to get to the point where he could turn out pictures like this.

Things are not as they seem. Matisse’s personality did not possess the laid back ease of his lollygagging odalisques and his light-infused interiors. Turns out it isn’t a requirement. What a relief! In many ways art making can be the way we possess the qualities we don’t embody easily, to evoke moods, auras and existences that are vastly different from the ones we inhabit.

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Man Ray, Observatory Time, The Lovers

Peabody Essex Museum’s current show, Man Ray and Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism, is part art exhibit and part psychological portrait of a relationship between two artists. While they were only together as a couple (in a very loosely defined sense) for a few years—from 1929 to 1932—the ramifications of that connection influence both of their work going forward.

The circumstances are a familiar trope: Beautiful young American model moves to Paris and wants to become a photographer. American expat artist, 17 years her senior, first her teacher and then her primary lover. Miller is talented and serious, but she is also distractingly gorgeous—one quote in the show describes how Paris high society argued who was more the beauty, Lee Miller or Greta Garbo—so we are not surprised to discover a relationship between the two that is stormy and difficult. It initially ends badly but the connection between them is strong. They do have a reconciliation a few years later and settle into a friendship that seems to have lasted for the rest of their lives.

But there is a strong smell of obsession in this show. Letters written by Ray to Miller during their few years together portray Miller as his muse, lover, acolyte, student, adversary, collaborator and agent provocateur. He is consumed by her, controlling and domineering. (How gender skewed this kind of obsessive love can be. Had a woman had written those letters we would view her unbalanced, over emotional and self-destructive.) While there are no revelatory letters from Miller included in the show, the curatorial drift suggests that Ray’s fixation on Miller is ongoing and impacts his work for years to come. Pages from Ray’s journals where he has obsessively written Elizabeth (Lee’s real name) over and over are blown up and included in the show. Miller went on to marry artist Roland Penrose, achieving attention and kudos for her photography during World War II, a project that left her severely depressed after the war. In the view of their relationship presented here, Miller lives on as a force in Ray’s work more than the other way around.

Certainly Miller’s presence can be traced in later signatory Man Ray works such as the lips (AKA Observatory Time, The Lovers, 1936) and his famous eyeball metronome (Indestructible Object, 1933 then again in 1965.)


Indestructible Object

The description of the Indestructible Object in the Tate catalog captures this well:

Man Ray made the first version of this object shortly after his companion, the American photographer and model Lee Miller, left him. Attaching a photograph of Miller’s eye to the metronome, he linked his memory of her to the idea of an insistent beat or pulse that was both irksome and unending – a metaphor, perhaps, for human desire. He smashed the original, which he had titled Object to be Destroyed. This later version, produced in an edition of 100, was called Indestructible Object because, he suggested, ’it would be very difficult to destroy all hundred.’

On the back of one of his photos of Miller’s eye which he gave to her, Ray hand wrote this note:

With an eye always in reserve
material indestructible…
forever being put away
Taken for a ride…
put on the spot…
The racket must go on
I am always in reserve

MR

Art making is full of obsessions and obsessional people. There’s no way to know what will become that powerful force that pulls you in, thrusts you forward, speaks to you so insistently that you have to let it have you. Many male artists have had similar obsessions with young beautiful women (several books have been written on this topic such as The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired which I would recommend) so the Ray/Miller relationship is a form we are familiar with. My fixations are of a different nature, not focused on other humans. But mine have been consuming and overwhelming as well. To each his own.

One more note: The art historian and former director of the Rose Art Museum, Carl Belz, did his doctoral dissertation on Man Ray. You can read his very personal account of his encounters with Man Ray here.

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