June 2013

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The first part of the Return from Parnassus, by Cy Twombly

The image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness, which idea can never claim. An idea is derivative and tamed. The image is in the natural or wild state, and it has to be discovered there, not put there, obeying its own law and none of ours. We think we can lay hold of image and take it captive, but the docile captive is not the real image but only the idea, which is the image with its character beaten out of it.

This quote from poet John Crowe Ransom was referenced by the late painter Cy Twombly who, interestingly enough, employed a lot of text, often from Dante, in his effusive and expressive canvases. It’s a powerful set of sentences. As a visual artist, I was caught by its boldness.

In her book Madness, Rack and Honey, Mary Ruefle references this quote as well in her essay, “On Beginnings.” This piece pokes and prods at just how a poem actually starts as well as how it finds its way to its end, into closure.

This essay, like the rest in Ruefle’s book, is compelling, playful, wide ranging and smart.

From a review by David Kirby in the New York Times:

Ruefle’s mission is not to—yawn—remind everybody how precious poetry is; rather, it’s to give pleasure by showing how the mind works when it’s working most pleasurably.

In this she succeeds. Typically, she begins a thought with a quotation from a sage (“Gaston Bachelard says the single most succinct and astonishing thing: We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment”), then develops the thought to give it her own spin (concluding, in the case of Bachelard, that we can at least dignify our dashed hopes “by admiring not the thing itself but how we can organize it, think about it”). Now this sounds like poetry to me, but it also sounds like my thoughts on the last overpriced restaurant meal I ate, as well as the American political system. And that’s the point: we begin in one place, then we’re all over the map, but we’ve been up a time or two before, so now we’re bringing that thought in for a nice soft landing.

Poets continue to speak most saliently to me about the process I experience in the studio. They are wordsmiths after all, and they are better at calling forth the furtive and the fragile.

Here’s another theorist referenced by Ruefle in a passage that every painter can identify with (from Poetic Closure: A Study in How Poems End by Barbara Herrnstein Smith):

Perhaps all we can say, and even this may be too much, is that varying degrees or states of tension seem to be involved in all our experiences, and that the most gratifying ones are those in which whatever tensions are created are also released. Or, to use another familiar set of terms, an experience is gratifying to the extent that those expectations that are aroused are also fulfilled.

That’s a set of issues I work on just about every day.

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A subset of Rhapsody, by Jennifer Bartlett

I usually don’t write about a book until I have finished it. Or at least done the gleaning. But my enthusiasm won’t be bridled. Although I am only 100 pages into The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, I can’t NOT talk about this book.

Every page is delicious. The wordsmithing is so good you want to linger long, like driving slowly through a neighborhood with really fantastic Christmas lights. My partner David said this is the first time he’s seen me willingly slow down to 1 mph.

As James Wood wrote in the New Yorker (just one in a heaping stack of glowing reviews of the book):

Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers”…is scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice. It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures: Kushner is never not telling a story. It is nominally a historical novel (it’s set in the mid-seventies), and, I suppose, also a realist one (it works within the traditional grammar of verisimilitude). But it manifests itself as a pure explosion of now: it catches us in its mobile, flashing present, which is the living reality it conjures on the page at the moment we are reading.

I agree with him completely.

But an essential question is still out there for me: How does it happens that a book—or any work of art— can achieve that “pure explosion of now?” What is it that makes something jump up and speak so clearly, even when the setting is, like The Flamethrowers, in a completely different era?

This is a quality that goes way beyond the manipulations that drive fads and trends. (Will anyone remember or care about the Shades of Grey books in 20 years? I didn’t read them but I am still voting no.) I am looking for a something that is intrinsic, like the unique vocal quality of a coloratura soprano. Some things just can’t be taught and exist in some other place altogether.

I’ve seen that kind of “pure explosion of now” happen in the visual arts world as well. And in keeping with The Flamethrowers‘ timeframe, three of them happened to me in the 70s. There was that first heart stopping exhibit of the Ocean Park paintings by Richard Diebenkorn. And the life changing Richard Tuttle show at the Whitney in 1975 that was so out there it cost curator Marcia Tucker her job.

But the most memorable example was Jennifer Bartlett‘s exhibit at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1976. A newly arrived émigré to the Lower East Side from California (which, like any place that was not New York, was dismissed as a cultural backwater), I was an artist who wanted to do nothing but paint during a time when painting was being pushed aside and labeled outdated and irrelevant. Then Bartlett’s show opened. It immediately hit a nerve. It was all anyone talked about for months.

From Hilarie Sheets‘ New York Times review of Bartlett’s upcoming retrospective:

In the late 1960s, when many conceptual artists were using graph paper to chart their ideas, Ms. Bartlett wondered if she could make hard graph paper that could be wiped clean and revised, and that would resist coffee stains and cigarette ashes. Inspired by subway signs, she fabricated 12-inch-square steel plates coated with baked white enamel and silkscreened with a pale grid on which she could paint with Testor enamels. (Joel Shapiro, her neighbor in the tight group of artists colonizing SoHo then, lent her $500 to make the first batch.)

Those plates became the building blocks of Ms. Bartlett’s signature paintings that she configures in expandable grids. Best-known is her 987-plate installation, “Rhapsody,” first shown at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1976. The piece addressed the question of what options are available in modern painting and playfully categorized the spectrum of possibilities in sections devoted to color, geometric shapes, types of line and the basic motifs of house, tree, mountain and sea.

“ ‘Rhapsody’ was absolutely groundbreaking and new, incorporating the space itself by wrapping painting around walls and corners,” said Klaus Ottmann, a curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington. The piece received significant critical acclaim, making Ms. Bartlett one of the most successful artists in the 1970s, Mr. Ottmann said. “Rhapsody” was eventually acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, and was shown in the atrium in 2006 and again in 2011.

These eruptions of greatness still thrill me, all these years later. I am guessing Kushner’s book is one more for that list.

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Table (Tisch), by Gerard Richter

No.1: First Works of 362 Artists is a book based on the premise that most artists have a piece they consider their true first painting. Editors Francesca Richer and Matthew Rosensweig attended a lecture by Robert Storr in conjunction with the Gerard Richter retrospective at MOMA in 2002. Richter had chosen to start the exhibition with a painting he did in 1962, Table (image above.) Although Richter had been painting for several years before this one emerged, this is the painting where Richter recognized himself as an artist for the first time.

In the same lecture Storr mentioned that Barnett Newman considered his painting Onement I as his true beginning even though it also showed up several years after he had been working. Richer and Rosensweig were curious enough to investigate this idea further.

They sent out a request to artists that was intentionally open-ended—a personal interpretation of what consititutes a first work. Some artists responded with images from childhood, others cited works that came later but were meaningful. Many had a piece they already considered their first.

The book consists of one image with a written statement by each artist. Some are recognizable names but not all. Reading each artist’s reason for choosing a particular work of art as their “first” is a window into how the vision of visual expression unfolds.

A few samples:

Cecily Brown: “This painting…was among the first paintings I made that weren’t embarrassed to be paintings.”

Jake Berthot: “You could say the Little Flag Painting art talk gibberish was a total misread of Jasper Johns—which it was—but the guts of it came from being really pissed off. It was the first time feeling and seeing became one.”

Sue Williams: “I was looking for a way of working, like a format for my words and drawings and collected images to come together. To make a work of art, I suppose. This was a frustrating time. An artist friend of mine told me “just keep trying things, and a door will open.” I said, “WHAT?” Also around this time I was impressed by a piece by Mike Kelley. it was an installation piece about insect eggs and seemed to go off the deep end. I thought this was very cool; you can do whatever you want. I didn’t know that.”

Rachel Whiteread: “As a postgraduate student at the Slade, I made a small work out of Sellotape. I suppose I was trying to create the skin of the table—an “occasional table” that had been in my family for years. The piece existed for only a few days. It was very fragile.

“Almost two years on, I made what I would consider my first “sculpture,” entitled Closet. It was cast directly from a wardrobe and covered in black felt; I was simply trying to make a childhood memory concrete. It changed my life.”

Tatsuo Miyajima: “My work focuses on the spirit of the user of technology, not on technology itself. People are always important. I am interested in art because it is born from people’s spirit. Art is in your mind. I call it “Art in You.” My work is equipment to look at your own self.”

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The Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, Layton Utah





My mother grew up less than a mile from what is now a Nature Conservancy preserve on the Great Salt Lake. This landscape has fresh water and salt marshes, ten foot high grasses, ponds and pools, mudflats and fields. The colors and textures change constantly throughout the year, so every visit is a surprise. I have never been to the cemetery where my mother is buried (just a few miles north of this place) but coming here feels like the best way to commune with what was my mother’s earthly substrate.

The preserve is also an important stopover for all kinds of migrating birds, a rest area for pilgrims winging their way from Canada to Central and South America. How appropriate. Many creatures come here before continuing on journeys that cycle rather than terminate, perpetuate rather than complete. This spot is my personal sanctuary of remembrance, my way of staying connected to what has been.

And lucky for us, there are so many ways to do that. It is often hard to describe, and sometimes you just have to be with it rather than talk about it. I had that feeling over and over during my time in Utah and New Mexico. Two weddings, each with specific rituals to sanctify and seal. The desert landscape, full of evocation and imagination. The quiet power of the little village that harbors El Santuario de Chimayó, a pilgrimage site outside Santa Fe. Crosses. Saints. Roadside altars. It is an immense net of remembrance and sacredness.

In All Things Shining, authors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly explore how literature can help us reconnect passionately with the world. They take us through a tour of meaning from the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Augustine, Dante, Kant, Melville and David Foster Wallace. (The chapter on Moby Dick should be required reading.) In redefining what is sacred, they quote DFW:”You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or to try to define it in terms of what it is not.”

Dreyfus and Kelly add this point:

This glancing approach is inclined towards reconciliation instead of purification. It involves a fully human notion of the sacred that lives not in the repudiation or transcendence of pain and boredom and anger and angst, but rather in the recognition that these difficult aspects of our existence live together with the sacred moments, that they complete one another, and make sense of one another.

Meaning is afloat, in the grasslands of the Great Salt Lake and the desert skies over Chimayó. Leaning into reconciliation rather than purification feels right to me.

Chimayo copy
Inside a church in Chimayó

Altar in Chimayó

Remembrance in Chimayó

Crosses on a fence in Chimayó

After enough years, the crosses placed on this tree have become embedded in the bark

Desert sky (This is not painted. Amazingly.)

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Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City

In Mary Ruefle‘s Madness, Rack and Honey, she references the concept of “unhitching.” The very word delights me: the idea of not being tethered or contained, of being let loose.

It can mean so many different things of course, but Ruefle is referencing its particular use in Claude Lévi-Strauss‘s Tristes Tropiques, a book that she says “for better or for worse, changed the views of Western civilization in the twentieth century.”

The full quote from Lévi-Strauss is below, a wild and rhapsodic invitation:

When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; man may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy; that of arresting the process, of controlling the impulse which forces him to block up the cracks in the wall of necessity one by one and to complete his work at the same time as he shuts himself up within his prison; this is a privilege coveted by every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists—Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations!—in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.

I have read this passage about ten times, and every pass through feels like the words moved off the page since the last time I was there. It’s a full spectrum quote.

But it also feels like an apropos parting nod. I will be away from Slow Muse for two weeks while I am in Utah and New Mexico. As always when traveling, I fantasize about being engaged in all manner of unhitchedness, wandering far afield of hive-like activities. I will be looking for an entrance into the contemplation of mineral, and of the lily’s heart.

Adieu til June 19.

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As most of my readers know, I rely on poets to describe—as much as it can be described—what takes place in the isolation of my painting studio day after day, month after month, year after year. There are so many who can wield the word wand so much better than I can, many of whom I have quoted previously such as Jane Hirschfield, William Stafford, Robert Haas, Christian Wiman, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Dean Young, among many others.

But I now have another to add to my list of “dealers”—those suppliers of words that I desperately, deeply, undeniably cannot live without—Mary Ruefle. Her recent collection of lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey, is full of worthy descriptions (as well as warnings) of that hairy cliff’s edge where many of us have chosen to set up shop. Her tone is attuned to my high regard for anyone who admits that they do not have the answers and do not pretend to have it all figured out. I don’t, and I don’t mind saying so. In fact a steady willingness to be with the Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind has served me well all these many years.

Here’s an example of Ruefle’s self effacing stance:

I always looked askance at writing on writing, but I’m intelligent enough to see that writing is writing. Still, my allegiance to poetry, to art, is greater than my allegiance to knowledge and intelligence, and that stance is harder and harder to maintain in today’s world, because knowledge and intelligence form the corporate umbrella (the academy) that shelters and protects poetry in a culture that cares about other things. On the other hand, the evening news tells us a corporation is not interested in protecting anything other than itself. This is best contemplated by the younger generation, on whom it will have the greatest impact.

I see this book as my having learned, step by step, how to think and talk about poetry in ways and terms that are my own, and when these ways become boring to me, I began to break down my methods; anyone can see the lectures become increasingly fragmentary and turn, who knows, even against themselves.

Ruefle goes on to equate poetry with a “wandering little drift of unidentified sound” and a bit like following a thrush into the woods. If you persist, she points out, the thrush just goes deeper into the woods and you will never actually see it. “‘Fret not after knowledge, I have none,’ is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.”


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(Painting detail with a cosmic flair)

Star Birth of the Word ULASSA

Just now, May 23, 2013, I have in my conceit
created a brand new word, Ulassa,
at 8:05 AM: as I write,
Ulassa is an infant star that burns white hot hydrogen and
Joins—who knows—988,000 English words or more,

As a new birthed star joins our known universe of—who knows—
22 septillion other stars,
give or take a few quadrillion,

150 billion galaxies
150 billion stars
Do the math humbly,

The Oxford English Dictionary will say it means
“the short sense of escape we can experience,
when something really bad has happened”,

Like, a childsister has gone missing or
we hear we may lose a foot from frostbite,
so in those short escapes from ongoing pain,

We get will get ulassa,
From meditation or the bottom of
a rum cola—

Or the red coals
of a summer campfire,
the molecules of carbon
drinking oxygen,

Ulassa in the dictionaries,
will have no real etymology
for a while,

Having first breathed air only
on the morning of
May 23, 2013,

Ulassa will enter poems
and maybe yoga classes,
will become a cocktail and

An expensive perfume, eventually
A breed of cat, or surely the
Name of a racehorse
Even a minor crater on
The surface of the moon,

Ulassa will live for four hundred years
73 languages, give or take,
will borrow and ingest it,

Before it burns out like a star or “odd bodkin”
from Shakespeare, just remember,
It started Here, on this day

You will see.

–Frederick Shiels

Rick Shiels is a relatively new friend. After a life of extensive book learning, professoring and expertizing about the American Presidency, Japan, nuclear weapons control, the Baltic States and Latvia, he has now turned his sights on poetry making. When he sent me this poem this week I sat up in my seat. What a gamely blend of the cosmic and the comic! I had to share it here (with Rick’s permission of course.)

For more about Rick’s many interests, visit his (relatively) new blog, Progressive Future USA.

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