Aesthetics

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Charles Burchfield writing at his desk, by William Doran (Photo: Charles E. Burchfield Archives, Gift of William Doran)

For years I had Charles Burchfield misfiled under “Depression Era Regional Artists” along with Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. It wasn’t a file I spent much time rifling through, so my error wasn’t discovered until I saw the show of his work curated by artist Robert Gober in 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Whitney in New York. (An earlier post detailing that revelatory show is Burchfield on my Mind.)

Everything changed when I saw his work in a full continuum. In just one day Burchfield catapulted from an obscure regionalist whose work I barely knew to one of my favorite artists. My passion for him has only increased with time.

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Burchfield’s Autumnal Fantasy

While I was in Chautauqua New York for the opening of my show, On the Surface: Outward Appearances (details here), I was able to see two exhibitions that featured Burchfield and his work. One was serendipitously upstairs from On the Surface at the Strohl Arts Center—The Paintings and Writings of Charles E. Burchfield. By comingling both visual and verbal Burchfieldisms, this show makes the best case yet for his true identity as a visionary, a nature mystic, and a channel. Once you get that it is so obvious, especially when reading the words he wrote.

With the exception of Robert Gober,* art historians have not embraced the deeply mystical aspects of Burchfield’s work. He is not included in the list of visionary artists along with the likes of William Blake, Gustave Moreau and Morris Graves. Burchfield doesn’t look the part, that’s for certain: his unpretentious midwestern demeanor just doesn’t suggest “mystic” to anyone. Visiting the Burchfield Penny Museum in Buffalo—which boasts the largest collection of his work—I found the curatorial commentary rather tone deaf to the rhapsodic quality of Burchfield’s connection with the natural world. The portrait of him that they seem to draw is one of a benign, hard working landscape artist who had a peculiar tendency towards extra swirls which they refer to as “heat waves”.

I get it. Burchfield’s ability to see the auric fields that exist around every tree, flower and star is not an aesthetic category that is easy to explain. I had the extraordinary advantage of viewing his work with my friend Linda who possesses a similar ability, so her immediate recognition of what Burchfield was up to reinforced my own intuitive sense of his gift of mystical seeing.

A few of Burchfield’s hand scrawled messages included in the Chautauqua show read like mystical pronouncements, as instructions channeled to him directly. One that I did not photograph captures the essence of Burchfield’s seminal assignment:

Give yourself up entirely to nature. Let nature woo you.

That line couples nicely with another Burchfield quote:

An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.

Given the increased interest in Burchfield and his work, I am certain there are several researchers working on what will become the newly updated and definitive biography of his life. I hope any future retelling will include a more robust recognition of Burchfield’s deeply mystical and visionary nature.

Handwritten notes from the Burchfield exhibit at Chautauqua:

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“You cannot grow unless you attempt things beyond your powers.”

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“It is up to you now, to carry on. Are you equal to the task?”

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“You are completely dead – Devoid of any emotional attitude toward nature Wake up – be bold, make bold caricatures & conventionalizations.”

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*Robert Gober is the one voice that does acknowledge Birchfield’s otherworldliness. In his catalog for the show, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, Gober goes so far as to describe Burchfield’s work as “immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature…often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities.”

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Louise Nevelson (Photo: Nancy R. Schiff—Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I long ago took the position that giving advice is a fool’s errand, especially with artists. My personal MO is right in line with the lyrics from Willie Nelson‘s recently released song, Band of Brothers:

We are a band of brothers and sisters and whatever,
On a mission to break all the rules.
I know you love me cause I love you too,
but you can’t tell me what to do.

Not believing in advice doesn’t mean I’m not curious about how others go about fulfilling their mission of breaking all the rules however. I am actually quite fascinated by how many ways there are to be a transgressive which, at our core, most artists are.

Two books, one by a poet and one by a sculptor, crossed my path this week. Both are memoirs that offer the expected reflective, confessional and personal accounting of a life. But that’s where the similarities end.

What Poets are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life, by Gary Soto, is a beguiling, funny, self-mocking account of life as a not Name Brand poet.

From a review in the Chicago Tribune:

Soto, the child of working-class Mexican-Americans, has not had an undistinguished poetic career. He has won awards and fellowships, been nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (He’s also the author of several successful books for children and young adults.) But “What Poets Are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life,” a loose collection of mostly autobiographical vignettes and anecdotes, is full of genial self-mockery. He tallies his rejection letters, jokes about not getting grants, laments his sales figures, gets depressed when he sees his books (inscribed by him, no less) in used bookstores, writes that he doesn’t translate more often “for I possess only talent enough to bungle my own poems.” He describes reading at a Barnes & Noble to an audience consisting of a single member who listened to a single stanza before waving his hand and saying “Stop, stop, I’ll buy the book.” This is endearing but overfamiliar. If you’ve heard anything about poets in America, it’s probably that they are unknown and unread, except by other poets and perhaps a few freaks on the fringes.

With his easy in/easy out short fiction form, Soto talks with candor about the ignominy of being overlooked, under appreciated, unrewarded and feeling just plain left out and left behind. Which are all feelings with which every artist I know—be they poets or musicians or visual artists—is intimately familiar. Soto is dogged by the specter of being rejected by yet another obscure Midwest journal, being invited to read and no one showing up, or being asked the dreaded question, “Where do you get your ideas?” (We all have our list of those painful occupational rites of passage that don’t deliver on the passage, just the pain.) Soto has found a sweet spot between the gentle insouciance and lightheartedness that are his nature and the intense desire he also possesses to have his work read, appreciated and admired. The humor and self-mockery are his survival skills.

Soto’s little book is about a 1/4th the size of another artist’s memoir: Louise Nevelson‘s Dawns + Dusks: Conversations with Diana MacKown. Famously self-confident, supremely brash and direct, Nevelson was born with a sense that it was her destiny to be famous and very successful, both of which she was.

John Canaday shares this anecdote in his introduction:

One woman asked Louise if she would have felt that her life had been well spent—if she would have felt sufficiently rewarded for a life in art—if the recognition had never come…”if it had turned out that after all you weren’t first-rate.” Louise paused for a moment, puzzled (not typical of her). Other artists of the kind called “dedicated” would have answered, “It would still have been worthwhile,” which I suspect is what the questioner wanted to hear. But Louise finally said, “It never occurred to me to be anything else.”

The transcripts that form the text of this book are full of Nevelsonisms: “I was very sure of what I was doing. I believed in myself and I was utterly satisfied with what I believed in. I wasn’t going to let a soul on earth judge my life.” “I don’t want the safe way. The safe way limits you.” “I wanted one thing that I thought belonged to me. I wanted the whole show.” “I believed in my work and the joy of it. You have to be with the work and the work has to be with you.” Her sense of herself and her work is staggeringly clear.

No one can parse the formula behind Nevelson’s bravado and extraordinary career. Surely it is a blend of genius, guts, hard work, timing, and the secret ingredient in any successful venture, luck. But the mantra still stands, no matter who you are: Nobody can tell you what to do.

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Meredith Monk (Photo: Peter Ross)

Meredith Monk was an ubiquitous influence on me during my early years as an artist in New York City duing the 70s. Already an icon, she explored forms of expression that ranged wide and deep, crossing over into so many different métiers—dance, music, visual art, writing, film, performance, theater. She is the archetype of artist as shaman, artist as visionary.

In a recent interview with Monk, she makes this observation:

There are basically two kinds of artists. One is a mirror of the particular time that artist lives in. The other is more the way that I think about things, which is a more timeless kind of idea of very fundamental energies and cycles of human behavior and things that recur. We are sensitive, and we stand a little bit away from the world, enough to respond to it, but at the same time we offer an alternative.

What I’m trying to do is to offer an experience, a direct experience in the very distracted world that we’re living in, which might not be so easy. It’s very hard for us to let go of our devices and distractions, and the nakedness of the present is, for many people, very painful. The stillness, the not being entertained, and just the being in the present is not that easy, but I think that that’s what I’m trying to do in my work — to offer a situation where audience members could actually let go of the distractions, let go of the mental narrator, let go of the restlessness for a certain period of time.

Monk’s first paragraph captures a concept I have circled around for years, and she does it with such simplicity and clarity. And her second paragraph—how we manage in this very distracted world—is a succint reminder of the importance of putting down our devices on a regular basis (not just on holidays) and being in the “nakedness of the present.” May your 4th of July be full of that.

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The Whitney Museum’s current Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue, soon to be abandoned for the new Renzo Piano space downtown. Photo: Gryffindor, via Wikimedia Commons.

As controversies are already abounding regarding the opening of the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum (The most visible being John Yau‘s recent essay in the Brooklyn Rail, The Difference Between Jerry Saltz’s America and Mine), I have been thinking about art criticism and what it means to me as an artist and maker. I have no interest in Koons or in seeing the show, but responses to his work may at times present a narrative that is of interest. Now that’s a curious thing, when art with which I have no connection can create a conversation around it that can be compelling.

A passage I found in Rebecca Solnit‘s essay, “Woolf’s Darkness”, from her new collection, Men Explain Things to Me, addresses some of this.

Referring to her years as an art critic:

I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.

The proclivity to “make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable” is an ongoing challenge for any artist whose work is to dig deep into that which is uncertain and unknowable. “What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether,” says Solnit.

But there is also a kind of counter-criticism that actually expands the work of art, that opens up its meanings and its possibilities. Criticism of this kind can liberate a work of art and will engage in a conversation that keeps feeding the imagination. That is when criticism achieves a whole new level.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas…this is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence: the best opens up an exchange that need never end.

That is how it feels to read the really good writers about art. I put John Yau in that category along with W. S. Di Piero, Lawrence Rinder, David Levi Strauss, Sianne Ngai, Dave Hickey, Michael Kimmelman, Sebastian Smee and Donald Kuspit. And of course my all time favorite writer about contemporary art—the great Carl Belz.

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I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the work of Norman Rockwell. He used the techniques of illustration to paint a world that ignored complexity and captured some imagined untroubled time. As W. S. Di Piero points out in an essay about his work in When Can I See You Again?, “He represented experience in a way that presumed hospitable intimacies but wasn’t intimate at all…his narrow pictorial and moral range left nothing to chance. He over-managed effects and stiffly controlled audience response. His pictures are by and large cold Yankee products in which human intimacy is a contrived icy gaiety.”

But he was popular. He got his first Post cover when he was 22 and spent his life with high visibility and success. His work became signatory of an entire era in American cultural history.

Di Piero isn’t complete bloodless in his critique of Rockwell. He was a “scrupulous, hard working craftsman” and had no illusions about himself and what he was about. “He once said he painted America not as it really was but as he would like it to be.”

While Di Piero’s essay on Rockwell is in response to a traveling exhibit from 15 years ago, the final paragraph rings true in a timeless way:

Pardon my dyspepsia. I’m ragging on Rockwell for not being what he never wanted to be. But it’s irritating that so much blockbuster expense and space—the show ended its tour at the Guggenheim, whose manipulative curatorial strategies so often cynically twist art-world rumor into established greatness—is given over to such an artist when we need more good, substantial shows of Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, and Fairfield Porter, all of them purer American artists than Rockwell could ever hope to be.

With giant New York blockbuster art shows heading our way from Jeff Koons at the Whitney and Björk (yes, that one) at MOMA, Di Piero’s dyspepsia about “manipulative curatorial strategies” that turn “art-world rumor into established greatness” is a good description of how many of us feel about these two exhibitions. I just have to ask: REALLY?

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“Untitled (Rorschach),” a 1999 work by Sigmar Polke.(Photo: Alistair Overruck/Estateof Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society)

The current show of Sigmar Polke’s work at MOMA, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, is staggeringly expansive. With 260 works of art filling 10 galleries plus the atrium, the curators wisely moved most of the accompanying text into a 30 page handout on newsprint. Headspinnigly complex, the feeling of being overwhelmed is unavoidable.

Sebastian Smee took a stab at it in his recent review in the Boston Globe:

What kind of artist was Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)? The question affords no easy answer.

Besides being the most protean major artist of the past three or four decades, this German face-puller, tongue-poker, and cackling boogeyman was the kind of artist willing to spend weeks and months extracting purple pigment from the glands of snails (following ancient, imperial precedent) only to apply the precious substance to silk with a kind of desultory shoulder shrug.

He was the kind of artist who was happy to spend vast chunks of his life hand-painting raster dots — the pixel grids that make up imagery on television screens and printed matter — or pointing a video camera at whatever took his fancy…Replete with paintings, drawings, and prints on every scale and in every conceivable medium (and in some media, like “meteoric granulate,” “iron mica,” and “thermal enamel,” you probably never conceived of), as well as videos, photographs, photocopies, sculptures, and stained glass, [the exhibit] arrives four years after the artist’s death, at the age of 69.

Polke followed every thread and tried on every art trope. He is probably the most untethered and rule busting artist I know. The energy of his exploration is playful, but it is accompanied with a cold eye to the darker side of human nature and the world we have created. Polke “poured scorn on the idea of genuflecting before great art,” writes Smee. “An incessant, impulsive creator, he ridiculed our habit of revering artists or entering art galleries with earnest intent.”

The expansiveness and outward thrust of this extraordinary body of work is in high contrast to another artist I was reading about while I was in New York: Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). One of the most intimate of 20th century artists, Morandi’s oeuvre focuses almost exclusively on a very discrete number of objects that he rearranges repeatedly. He lived most of his life in Bologna with his mother and his sisters, teaching etching to make his way. He was introverted and private but not so isolated that he did not know about his contemporaries in Europe and the U.S. (He was interested in works by Rothko and Pollock.) He once said, “nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, that what we actually see. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, just the meanings we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.”

His approach is as far from Polke’s as you could possibly get. Where Polke is epic and expansive, Morandi is concentrated, quiet, personal and intimate. Polke experimented with every medium and form he could get his hands on, and Morandi stayed with his fascination for the arrangement of form and light in a simple still life. Polke’s humor and sardonic statements about art and the world require a willed detachment from the whole enterprise of art making. Morandi seeks a oneness with his vessels, working that connection over and over again. Yet both artists achieve an extraordinary expressiveness and are unforgettably forceful in their use of visual language.

My revisit with Morandi came through an essay about his work in the poet W. S. De Piero‘s collection of essays, When Can I See You Again? De Piero has long been one of my favorite poets who write about art (For other posts about him on Slow Muse, a list of links is below) and his description of Morandi’s work pulled me back into that world with just one read.

Here are a few passages that capture so much of what I love about Morandi’s work:

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He uses the material world to disclose the inner life, to get us to see into the secret lives of things and the instabilities of matter. The work scrutinizes in a visionary way the immaterial in the material. The pictures are extreme acts of attentiveness and can induce the kind of mania Ortega described when he wrote that a maniac (or lover) is somebody with an abnormal attention span.

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The paint can be alluvial, buttery, torpid or dashed, thinly whisked, nearly transparent. For years he ground his own pigment and returned all his life to variations on the a familiar range of tones, the sanded-down oranges, blushed umbers, and smoky maroons of Bologna’s walls.

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The modern sublime isn’t about magnitude or clarion ambition: it rubs perception so close to ordinary facts of physical reality that we feel pressed against a membrane that obscurely separates us from whatever lies on the other side, if there is another side. It intensifies and restores physical reality while suggesting something larger than consciousness. The frontal sensuous forms on a Morandi canvas induce an exhilarating anxiety about what’ unnameable and invisible but felt along the nerves.

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Morandi was the least performance-conscious of the great moderns. The only audience other than himself was the space between his eye and the canvas. And no modern more-or-less figurative artist so resists or shrugs off the use of words…Surrealism, Cubism, and Futurism make magpies of us, but his works don’t offer themselves up to words any more than Wallace Stevens’s poems offer themselves to illustration.

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Morandi’s chamber music of color harmonies, the degrees and directions of brushiness, the vibratory frequencies in and around objects—they don’t invite admiration, through they can charm us into casual awe. Modestly sumptuous to the eye, his art is tensely interiorized, it possess a reserve that puts us at a remove where we can observe the working relationship between the painter’s transformative eye and his silent sitters.

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He’s preoccupied not with liquidity and consistency but with what’s aspirated. He makes us see the ghost of a thing in a thing, as if he’s painting dark matter’s hues, a thing’s negative existence.

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Morandi’s art has everything to do with teasing out problems specific to the art, but one of its essential, sustaining pleasures is its comprehensive candor of presence (the studio paraphernalia expand and contract in a complex choreography of architectural or structural possibilities) blended with a humility that’s not reticence at all but something might and self-contained.

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Look long enough and the reappearing paraffin lamps, shells, Tin Man hats and the rest begin to feel like company. They were his company certainly, and they feel like they’re keeping us (and themselves) company…Their presence says: Recognize us, know us in order to know yourself.

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Giorgio Morandi (Photo: SIAE/Museo D’Arte Moderna E Contemporanea Di Trento E Rovereto)

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Other posts about De Piero:

Pitchers and Catchers
Whole Body Art
Hybrid Vigor
Matisse, Giotto and the Religious Imagination
Painting the Facelessness
Beyond Liturgy

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When I arrived in New York City in the early 70s—fresh from a very different cadence that was life on the Other Coast—my first roommate was another artist. George Wingate rented me my first berth on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for $87.50 a month, and we went on to become friends for life. He was studying with two larger-than-life teachers, Henry Pearson and Frank Mason, so many of my first friends in New York were artists I met through him. And it does not seem like a random event that both of us ended up leaving Manhattan and living out our lives in the Boston area. Our mutual geography has been fortuitous.

George has many talents, but lately he has been mastering the one day pop up exhibit. On Saturday in Gloucester he orchestrated his third event over the last few years. (Words and images about his previous two exhibits are posted here and here.) George’s sensibilities are quick, quirky and startlingly fresh. And while his work is uniquely and inviolately Wingatian, he also offers up a respectful nod to many of the artists we both love—Richard Tuttle, Barnett Newman, Lee Bontecou, John Cage, Joan Mitchell, among others.

Driving up to see this exhibit staged in an emptied 18th century space (The White-Ellery house is part of by the Cape Ann Museum), I listened to an entire episode of This American Life devoted to the tale of an abandoned house in Freedom New Hampshire. The storyteller was 11 years old when he first encountered it, and the house and the family who had abandoned it became an obsession and a haunted thread in his life and the lives of his friends. This hour long radio program was the perfect preamble to George’s very personal and provocative conversation with this aged and evocative structure, one that has had its own complex history. Demonstrating respect for the solemnity of its bare essence, George found a way to nudge, tease, prod and engage that structure into an adventure in looking and seeing.

This show had an extra feature that George has not explored in his two previous pop up exhibits: Sound. Sitting monk-like on the floor in an upstairs room, Gordon Williams was surrounded by simple tools for sounding, creating a backdrop of noises that were suggestive of “house language”: obscure knockings, cranked up hammerings, tinny creaks, all reminding us that every structure has a space and spirit of its own which sometimes comes with a soundtrack. This house, for one day, was given a playful festooning and memorable voicing that was both aural and visual.

This portfolio of images speaks best for yet another memorable Wingatian visual exposé.

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Pottery shards from a bygone era are everywhere along the upper mesa at Tsankawi

One of the best parts of visiting New Mexico is the rich mix of mark making. A sense of surfaces that have been touched is everywhere, some of it from human hands and some of it by other means. In a landscape that leans naturally into the minimalist and the contemplative, even the smallest gestures deserve attention.

So outdoors and in, alone and in company of friends, some great moments happened for me, extraordinary occasions for the eye to flood the interior landscape with a rare refulgence. That transformative experience—that “retinal flutter”—can and does happen everywhere that our engaged eyes travel. But there is something about the desert variety of those encounters that speaks personally and particularly to me. I have desert dirt in me, going back many generations, which is a handy explanation albeit an incomplete one.

A few highlights for those of you interested in the area of artmaking: Elmer Schooley (I have written about him previously here) has moments of brilliance that stand out from the rest of his work. The Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art collection in Roswell has probably the most exquisite Schooley I have ever seen in person. Untitled, it alone justified the 3 hour drive from Santa Fe. Other worthy viewables in Roswell: Susana Jacobson (my old LES loft mate), Johnnie Winona Ross and Jean Promutico.

Between jaunts into the desert on my own, I visited the studios of several friends. Having time to sit with extraordinary work and to talk about this engagement that mutually fills our waking (and dreaming) consciousness was so memorable. These New Mexico-based artists are doing work that continues to inspire, engage and delight me:

Ciel Bergman
David Forlano
Diane McGregor

Special thanks to the inimitable Jill Fineberg who was an intrepid advocate and friend throughout my visit.

I am off again tomorrow, this time to DC to celebrate the wedding of my sweet niece Sarah Larsen (plus some time with my ever changing and ever engaging granddaughter Siena Wilcox), but I’ll be back to being Boston-based next week.

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Untitled, by Elmer Schooley

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Untitled (detail)

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Untitled (even closer in)

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Johnnie Winona Ross at Anderson

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Jean Promutico at Anderson

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Susan Jacobson at Anderson

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The view of spaceship clouds from Tsankawi

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Surface of the water at the hot springs at Ojo Caliente

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The Earthship Biotecture near Taos

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More Earthship

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Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

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At Bitter Lake

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Aspens

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Desert wall

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Visiting Ciel Bergman’s studio (Photo: Jill Fineberg)

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Door into my zone of privacy, my studio

I am not the only artist out there voicing advocacy for the way of solitude. There are many of us who spend most of our days working alone and know that is the only way we can do what we do. But Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has brought the topic to a larger audience.

From her article, The Rise of the New Groupthink:

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

In her article, Cain highlights the necessary introverted approach of Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak:

The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.

But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.

Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

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Note: Today’s post is based on an earlier one from the Slow Muse archive.

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“Hydra,” by Kay Canavino*, a photograph in my personal collection that I look at every day and adore

I keep coming to that tough place, the one where you just have to say, “Yes, but…” It is a pervasive thing, this need to straddle. It isn’t just in the area of art and art making, but in so many aspects of life. How many times a day do we encounter strongly stated opinions, ones that make a case with unyielding certainty? The problem is, I don’t believe in certainty, so the push back is constant.

Here is a good case in point: The ongoing argument regarding the nature of art criticism and the role that it plays in relationship to experiencing and coming to terms with art. In an interview with the art theorist Arthur Danto (who passed away last October), he is asked to define the role of the critic who has lived during the transition from modernism to postmodernism:

Modernist criticism is formalist, while postmodernist criticism is relativist…My objection to formalism is that it tends to imply that formalism is all there is to criticism. My objection to postmodernism is that it tends to imply that there are no universal truths about art. Postmodernists base this belief on the radical pluralism that has overtaken the art world in recent decades. I am entirely a defender of radical pluralism (the term was invented by William James), which may make it seem that I am in fact postmodernist myself. But I am, to the contrary, an essentialist, and my project as a philosopher of art has been to nail down the definition of art that covers all cases, western and non0-western, contemporary and traditional. So I am entirely anti-relativist.

Nail down a definition of art that holds in all cases? Is he serious? Later in the same interview he says, “the method of art criticism I practice is much like science, in the sense that in science, one infers to the best explanation of the data.” Not my way of experiencing (or creating) art.

Another critic, Donald Kuspit, answers the same question:

In modernism aesthetic and cultural values, and the value of art itself, seemed clear, however debatable. In postmodernism, nothing is clear—everything to do with art is open to interminable discussion. Uncertainty rather than certainty reigns. It is no longer possible to be definitive: to have a decisively closed reading, an absolute idea of value, a linear historical narrative…In postmodernism the canon has collapsed, and the collapse reverberates back onto modernism: there is no such thing as modernism, but rather a pluralism of modernisms, each with its particular concerns and values, and each addressed to a different audience. We are truly in what André Malraux called “museum without walls”—a museum in which no artists have a place of privilege, and every artist, however ostensibly innovative, is simply one factor in an ever expanding field of artistic operations and audience participation.

Yes, but…there are other versions of what is happening. This is just one.

But then, in the same interview, Kuspit drills down deeper into a particularly harsh and discomforting reality—how the market for art is affected by those trends:

In postmodernism the market has become the major determinant of art’s meaning and value, thus usurping critical consciousness, which is a tragedy for both art and criticism. Both have become peculiarly impotent–encapsulated and neurtralized—by the popularity and importance that money confers. Art has entered the capitalist mainstream: more than ever, its exchange value matters more than its use value–its value for consciousness, emotion, subjectivity, and more broadly culture. Decades ago Meyer Schapiro noted that the spiritual and economic value of art tended to be confused. Today the economic value of art confers spiritual value on it, at least for the public at large.

He engenders less of a push back from me with this point of view. Kuspit’s take on things closely tracks with a recent piece about the rise in art prices at auction in the New York Times titled, The Great Divide in the Art Market. Addressing the impact of these economic changes on art investing, this article dovetails with the conclusions of the cause célèbre book at the moment, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, written by rockstar economist Thomas Piketty.

From the Times:

Where does that leave a lower-level art investor?

“People look too much at auction results,” Mr. McNerney said. “Rich collectors compete in auctions to prove how much money they have. The rest of us should just have a discussion about the art we like.”

And so with “investment grade” works beyond the reach of most wallets, buyers at the lower end of the market are having to fall back in love with the idea that art is a commodity that generates something more than mere financial returns.

“Art gives you something every day,” said Pilar Ordovas, a London-based dealer and former European head of Christie’s contemporary art department. “There are several art markets, and it is possible to buy good things that are prints and works on paper. It’s all about developing an eye and not ticking boxes and thinking about stocks and shares.”

I am less with the “Yes…but” with this report and more with the wish that someday, somehow, more people will figure out how intense and powerful the connection can be with art that was not purchased for investment purposes. Imagine! Buying art that you picked yourself, because it spoke to you personally. The walls of my home are filled with works that enthrall me everyday, most of them by artists whose names you would not recognize but who are as committed and hardworking as those who show up in auctions.

But that is another topic for another day.

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*You can see more images from Kay Canavino here.

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