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Shadows on my studio wall

When artist Robert Knafo wrote to request a studio interview with Robert Morris, this was the response he received back. Knafo describes this as the best No he ever received. “I love how he calmly shoots the art documentary cliches, holsters his gun, and walks away,” Knafo wrote. “Thank you Robert for making me think again about what I’m doing.”

I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made half a century ago. Minimalism does not need to hear from me. I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made yesterday. Contemporary art is making enough noise without me. I do not want to be filmed in my studio pretending to be working. I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art—either mine or others past or present–which are labored and disguised performances. I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists or art historians about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, future artists. A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of speaking. It is possible that I was led into art making because talking and being in the presence of another person were not requirements. I do not want to be asked my reasons for not having worked in just one style, or reasons for any of the art that got made (the reason being that there are no reasons in art). I do not want to answer questions about why I used plywood, felt, steam, dirt, grease, lead, wax, money, trees, photographs, electroencephalograms, hot and cold, lawyers, explosions, nudity, sound, language, or drew with my eyes closed. I do not want to tell anecdotes about my past, or stories about the people I have been close to. I refuse to speak of my dead. The people to whom I owe so much either knew it or never will because it is too late now. I do not want to document my turning points, high points, low points, good points, bad points, lucky breaks, bad breaks, breaking points, dead ends, breakthroughs or breakdowns. I do not want to talk about my methods, processes, near misses, flukes, mistakes, disappointments, setbacks, disasters, obsessions, lucky accidents, unlucky accidents, scars, insecurities, disabilities, phobias, fixations, or insomnias over posters I should never have made. I do not want my portrait taken. Everybody uses everybody else for their own purposes, and I am happy to be just material for somebody else so long as I can exercise my right to remain silent, immobile, possibly armed, and at a distance of several miles.

Some find this to be an unduly aggressive response. Others have pointed out that it speaks to the luxury of being an artist who is so famous he can do whatever he wants. All true. But the appeal for me is something deeper.

My fundamental experience has been that much of what makes art so compelling and important cannot be languaged or articulated. And shouldn’t. That isn’t a notion that is necessarily in fashion right now. As John Seed pointed out in his piece, I Don’t Deconstruct, this unwillingness may be the result of my coming of age when spontaneity and engaging with the ineffable were in vogue. Those art school values have been replaced with a deconstructionist/postmodern/intellectual approach to art making, all of it very language dependent.

From Seed’s article:

Being able to “deconstruct” requires speaking and understanding a certain type of language, and subscribing to certain intellectual theories. People who are comfortable deconstructing converse in a language I call “artspeak.” Artspeak is—for contemporary artists, curators and critics—what Latin was for Medieval priests: an esoteric language that separates and elevates.

Some art lends itself to talk, talk, talk. And that verbally enhanced visuality can be stimulating. But Morris’ list of things he will not do marks off a territory where engagements with visuality are free to be unexpected, compelling and mysterious. Much of the “retinal flutter” (Marcel Duchamp‘s term, originally coined as a pejorative but my favorite phrase to describe those transcendent moments) will continue to exist outside a languaged explanation. That flutter is ambient in its natural state, always a bit furtive and endlessly undefined.

(Thank you Mira Schor for sharing this memorable Morris-to-Knafo response.)

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Mar Jee 3
Mar Jee 3, from a recent series

I have been spending some time contemplating where working and mystery coalesce. Here are a few thoughts about that by way of some wise practitioners…

Shaking the Tree

Vine and branch we’re connected in this world
of sound and echo, figure and shadow, the leaves
contingent, roots pushing against earth. An apple

belongs to itself, to stem and tree, to air
that claims it, then ground. Connections
balance, each motion changes another. Precarious,

hanging together, we don’t know what our lives
support, and we touch in the least shift of breathing.
Each holy thing is borrowed. Everything depends.

–Jeanne Lohmann

Jeanne Lohmann is a Quaker poet in her 90s. Her deep respect for the mysterious parts of life is evident in this poem. But she also speaks to the fundamental nature of making art itself day in and out: “What is the spiritual practice of poetry? I think we fool ourselves with such divisions, separations. Practice is practice is practice, and requires us whole, body and breath that animates.”

“Practice is practice is practice.” Reading that line reminded me of yet another quote about the need to do the yeoman thing, this one by David Rakoff:

The only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.

There is a tacit invitation to hold that taut point between the ineffable and the day-to-day necessity of practice, practice, practice. That pull is an ancient and essential tension, one that has been explored in every spiritual tradition both East and West. That is a pivot point many artists know about as well, one that defines their own very personal and often private wisdom path.

And yes, everything DOES depend.

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Detail from one of my recent painting series, “Angaris”

I recently found two statements about painting by Australian artist Helen Johnson that were very resonant for me. While Johnson’s work has identifiable content, her approach and attitudes are aligned with my work as a non representationalist.

First, her description of painting from a roundtable about painting in Frieze Magazine:

Painting is a space for the critical deployment of ambiguity, wit, failure and unknowing. Being a painter today doesn’t mean seeing painting as some kind of anachronistic refuge, or thinking that the modernist project of the medium can be rehabilitated, or even continue to be flogged. I am interested in the complexities, loadings and problems of painting as devices for producing meaning today, informed by a new range of conditions. I am not interested in using painting to defend itself, make statements or draw conclusions, but to open spaces for reflective thought, where a multiplicity of positions can be recognized, particularly as a means of resisting the imposition of a fixed narrative.

This passage is from Johnson’s artist statement which is so much better than most efforts in that category of writing about art that is often so tired and trite. I really like her directness and her awareness of contemporary contexts:

Painting serves as the primary ground of my practice, though the approaches I take seek an understanding of painting as a loaded medium operating on new terms in a post-medium condition…Painting is an interesting vehicle for me because it is loaded, neurotic, problematised, a market force, scattered, essentialised and recomplexified, loathed, able to operate simultaneously within and beyond itself, able to be beautiful and horrible at the same time. My approach to painting divagates from a grounding in figuration in search of a space of pluralism and openness, where the privilege of the subject becomes slippery. A gesture, alive in one painting, might be deadened through mechanised replication in the next…Construct and intuition ask questions of one another. The space of painting is for me a space where seemingly incontrovertible things are constantly being reconsidered, put into new relations with other things, where slippage is always present. In this regard it is a useful space for thought.

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Dave Hickey
Dave Hickey (Photo: Nasher Museum Of Art)

Most of us have a list of our “personal perennials”—those writers, artists and musicians whose works continue to delight, engage, astound, connect. My loyalty to my list runs deep, and there is nothing you could say to sway me from my devotions. They are my inner circle, my carefully selected cotravelers.

Bad boy and art critic Dave Hickey is on that list. My copies of his books, from Air Guitar to The Invisible Dragon to his latest, Pirates and Farmers, have underlining and comments scribbled on every page, their covers crinkled from repeated reading. Some people I know are tired of his tirades and his over the top condemnation of the monied art world, academia, phonies and bad art passing as good art. I get that.

But here’s the thing: For those of us who approach art making with a larger than life devotion and seriousness that has more in common with spiritual aspirants than with hip urbanites, this is a hard time to be an art maker. Money, glamorous commodification, ego and market manipulation increasingly drive the stratospheric world of gallerizing, auctioning and art fairing. More Wall Street than Rothko’s Chapel, that world’s glitter garners visibility and fascination because it is so excessive.

Nothing that happens in that realm however has anything to do with what many of us spend our days doing. If devotion to your work is what you do, you do it quietly and without fanfare. Hickey’s insouciance serves to clear the air of that ambient toxicity. Reading him actually helps me stay focused and steady in my work.

In this latest collection of essays Hickey writes about the difference between the art of Southern California and New York City, particularly during the Minimalisms (they are different) that emerged in the 1970s. He writes about Las Vegas, art collecting, taste, style and the difficulty in assessing the quality of a work of art. Through it all, he is wild and he is funny.

Here’s Hickey doing one of his Hickey things from the book title’s essay:

All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers. They are very different kinds of creatures, and some pirates even recognize the importance of farmers…Farmers on the other hand, always hate pirates…

Never forget that one of the chief causes of personal unhappiness in the US of A, where farmer culture is all but hegemonic, is the denial of pirate identity, because farmers always know who’s a pirate. Pirates don’t always know what they are.

It is very important to know which you are, says Hickey. “There are many unaware pirates, however, in workplaces around the world, who wonder why they are never invited to the weenie roast. They are pirates, but they just don’t know.”


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A page from the Voynich Manuscript

Who doesn’t love an unsolved mystery? Over the last few weeks a particularly beautiful one has been in the news—The Voynich Manuscript. Found by a Lithuanian bookseller in an Italian monastery in 1912, this book has been fascinating and frustrating scholars ever since. The ornate script remains unidentified, and various scholars have placed its origins in Europe, Asia, or South America. Some have speculated that the manuscript was created by Leonardo da Vinci, Roger Bacon or the bookseller Wilfrid Voynich himself. Another school of thought is that it is a very elaborate—and extremely well done—hoax.

It’s a beautiful object, and it has become an irresistible object that many want to claim, explain and understand. As Ruth Graham put it in her piece in the Boston Globe:

The Voynich offers more than just an uncrackable written code: Colorful illustrations depict fantastical plants, astronomical diagrams, and groups of naked women in bathtubs. You could embrace the book as a linguistic brainteaser, an antiquarian book novelty, a guide to a lost theory of the natural world, or a portfolio of outsider art.

Last month a botanist and a former Department of Defense information technologist proposed a new theory, claiming they have identified 37 of the manuscript’s 303 botanical illustrations as plants that would be found in a 16th-century botanical garden in Mexico. They have argued that the manuscript was written primarily in an extinct dialect of the Aztec language Nahuatl. Then last week a British applied linguist announced that he too had translated 10 of the words.

These recent discoveries have been met by the Voynichists with skepticism. What’s more, many consider any research into the manuscript as “academic suicide” mostly because studies of the manuscript must draw from a variety of different fields.

Graham’s article quotes from Nick Pelling, an author and Voynich expert:

“If you publish in a journal, there are boundaries you’re supposed to observe,” Pelling said. “It’s difficult to find a journal that fits those boundaries when what you’re studying goes across the boundaries.” He sees the Voynich as an indictment of the way many academic disciplines have fragmented over the course of the last century into smaller and smaller expertises. Pelling believes the answer to the manuscript will come from the field of intellectual history, whose practitioners look at historical evidence from a big-picture perspective, rather than the small-bore analysis of, say, botanists and statisticians.

Whether the Voynich is real or a fake, its fascination speaks to a human longing to understand and decipher. It is also a powerful symbol of what cannot be understand by just looking at its individual parts. Some things are simply beautiful and inscrutable—many works of art fall into that category for me—and there is an exquisiteness in just that.





Note: To see high resolution scans of each page, go to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library site.

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Blade, 6 x 7″, egg tempera on calfskin parchment by Altoon Sultan

Wonder, to preserve itself, withdraws. It withdraws from the mind, from the willing mind, which would make of mystery a category.

I remember being told a story about an old culture that believed the center of the forest was holy and could not be entered into. Even in the heat of the hunt, should the chased beast enter into the sacred center, the hunter would stop and not pursue. I think often about that line—which is not a line in any definite sense, is no certain marking, but rather is itself somehow without definition, a hazy line, a faulty boundary—that marks the periphery. One side of the line is the daily world where we who have appetites must fill our mouths, we who have thoughts must fill our minds. The other side is within the world and beyond, where appetite isn’t to be sated, where desire is not to be fulfilled, and where thoughts refuse to lead to knowledge. I like the moment of failure that finds us on that line, abandoned of intent, caught in an experience of a different order, stalking the line between two different worlds and imperfectly taking part in both. Such a place risks blasphemy at the same time that it returns reverence to risk.

–Dan Beachy-Quick

Poet Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book, Wonderful Meditations: Essays, Meditations, Tales is full of explorations around edges, boundaries and the invitation to cross over and into. Referencing Plato’s definition of a line as a point that flows, Beachy-Quick hopes that the reader of his book may find that point and “follow it as it flows toward that edge where the margin becomes a center, and the end of the book the hazy border to the wonder-world.”

How eloquent a description, and one that describes just what I hope happens when people invest the time to look at and be with my work. Once again I bow in appreciation to a poet’s ability to penetrate an experience I can feel but find difficult to articulate with words.

This concept also reminded me of one of my favorite posts by friend and artist Altoon Sultan on her always excellent blog, Studio and Garden, called The Burden of Content (which I recommend reading in its entirety.) She begins the post with this description of her own evolution as an artist:

Someone recently asked me why I’d stopped doing complex landscape paintings; I answered that I wanted to get closer to 20th century reductive abstraction, which I love. But that’s only part of the story: I also wanted to get out from under the heavy burden of content, the meaning––environmental, sociological––of those paintings. So this post is meant to tell the story of my journey, and it is related to my recent posts on William Carlos Williams, “no idea but in things”, and John Singleton Copley, “The Primacy of the Object”.

Altoon shares how her intentions and style of art making have moved over time. Starting with her early “‘portraits’ of domestic architecture” that expanded into an interest in larger agricultural landscapes, her focus just keeps morphing. Her eye moved in closer, and she became compelled by the very stuff of agriculture—the machinery, the implements, the silage. “I began to feel hemmed in by my content; what had motivated me before—the difficult environmental and social issues around farming—became extraneous to my concerns, which were formalist,” she writes.

And her final paragraph:

In 2010 I began to paint very small works on parchment; their compositions have become quite simple and direct….”no ideas but in things”….and the things are in themselves enough. I still find my subjects in agricultural implements; they have such variety of shape and color that they are of continual interest to me. But I don’t expect any story beneath them, any social/historical/environmental content; there is enough meaning and feeling and mystery in color/shape/form/light/composition.

Meaning and content are usually such loaded issues in the visual arts. Altoon’s ability to speak with such directness and honesty about her own experience of working through these issues is so refreshing, particularly with a topic that is usually fraught with equivocation and complexity. And where her work has taken her continues to be a wonder-world for me.

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Installation view from George Wingate’s one day exhibit, Up Stairs In Sight,* a show of unconventional but undeniable brilliance by an artist more people should know

Artistic gatekeeping. The role of the critic. The mantle of authority. The new democratization of how any of us can find, read, look and listen.

Two years ago Morley Safer lambasted contemporary art in a segment of 60 Minutes, and Jerry Saltz wrote a lively response. While Safer wanders through Art Basel Miami Beach and wonders why the “gatekeepers of art” can permit such bad art, Saltz counters with this: “He doesn’t know that there are no ‘gatekeepers’ in the art world anymore, that it’s mainly a wonderful chaos.”

When Safer references Saltz’s famous statement that 85 percent of the art we see is bad, Saltz responds with this:

I wanted to tell him that the percent I suggested doesn’t only apply to the present. Eighty-five percent of the art made in the Renaissance wasn’t that good either. It’s just that we never see it: What is on view in museums has already been filtered for us. Safer doesn’t get that the thrill of contemporary art is that we’re all doing this filtering together, all the time, in public, everywhere. Moreover, his 85 percent is different from my 85 percent, which is different from yours.

Whether you agree that there are no gatekeepers in the art world anymore or not, vetting and selecting is ongoing. The face of that may be changing, however. An outstanding example is a bold project undertaken by the Walmart-funded museum in Arkansas, Crystal Bridges, to assemble a major show of contemporary art opening this September called State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. Museum president Don Bacigalupi and assistant curator Chad Alligood have been traveling across the country to personally search for examples of contemporary art to be included in that show. Their criteria is “centered largely on the degree to which the artists’ works address themselves to the public. That is, we’re responding to work that offers points of engagement or access to viewers. Sometimes those points are borne in the artist’s facility or virtuosity with materials, others in their referencing of history or tradition, or in their works’ engagement with issues and topics of relevance to our world.”

The deep pockets—and whose pockets they are—as well as the aesthetic proclivities of Crystal Bridges have made the entire museum a controversial subject, and certainly that controversy will continue when this show opens in the fall. But regardless of the aesthetic intentions (which I must admit are not aligned with my own), the immense scope of this project will hopefully have some other unanticipated benefits. Projects like this by their very nature open up space for others to try their hand at something new. I am hopeful that this undertaking will help spawn more explorations into ways to see, more work being displayed, more interest in bringing visual language and expression closer to viewers everywhere.

That is what happened as a result of the Getty-funded mega-exhibit, Pacific Standard Time**, where 200 venues featured art made in Southern California between 1940-1970. After Roberta Smith saw just a handful of the shows she wrote, “Pacific Standard Time has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process.” Since then much has shifted around these artists and their impact on American contemporary art.

In writing about the pleasure that can be had from all aspects of cultural offerings, Adam Sternbergh asks why we cannot give up the whole idea that some cultural pleasures are edifying, better, or acceptable than others. Culture, he reminds us, is one of the last arenas of experience that can offer unmitigated pleasure. Why taint our experience with apprehensions about what others deem worthy or unworthy? Can’t we make that call ourselves?

From Sternbergh’s piece in the New York Times Magazine:

Increasingly I find myself attracted to a notion I’ll call cultural libertarianism, which might be best summed up in that old saying “Whatever floats your boat.” Which is to say, I’m less and less inclined to drop the hammer on someone who’s sitting in the corner, contentedly reading Dan Brown. Does this mean I’m obliged to acknowledge and celebrate the artistry of Dan Brown? Of course not. For me, personally, Dan Brown doesn’t do it; he leaves my boat unfloated. If you’re interested, I’m happy to share my reasons. But I’m not going to suggest that your enjoyment of Dan Brown is somehow degraded or embarrassing or shameful. I’ve not only lost my fervor to wage a holy crusade against people who enjoy Dan Brown; I’ve lost my faith in the kind of critical crusaders who do.

Sternburgh, a culture editor/critic, is aware that this position puts him in an uncomfortable spot. “This line of thinking seems to lead to arguing for a kind of critical anarchy — a cultural state in which all opinions are held to be equally valid and critical conversation itself is dismissed as so much distracting noise,” he writes.

The suggestion of critical anarchy is disturbing for some, but for me it is a wild endorsement of the power and importance of self authority. The chaos of the cultural landscape that Saltz describes and gleefully embraces has only one requirement for admission: That we can hear our own authentic response and acknowledge what moves us, personally. I can’t think of another aspect of cultural creation going forward that matters more.

* For more about George Wingate’s exhibit, read this post, Up Stairs In Sight.

** To read any of the many posts written here about Pacific Standard Time, do a search on that term to the left.

Piero della Francesca (Tuscany 1412? – 1492, Tuscany),The Senigallia Madonna and Child with Two Angels Tempera and oil on wood. Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most of my artist friends can speak about the exhilarating and very personal experience of being deeply moved by a work of art. These experiences so profound for me, and there are certain people I share that awe with because I know they will understand. I also appreciate when others describe their powerful art encounters as well. Friend and artist Altoon Sultan writes exquisitely about her responses to art works on her blog Studio and Garden. And the recent volume of Philip Guston‘s writings, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, is full of his lifelong passion for particular paintings and artists. Throughout that volume his adoration of Piero della Francesca‘s fresco paintings is clearly expressed.

But awe is not just for artists. Donna Tartt‘s most recent novel, The Goldfinch, has a small painting at its center that has enormous power over many of its characters and their lives. In his book Pictures and Tears, James Elkins references the Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition that results in rapid heartbeat, dizziness and even fainting when viewing a work of art. Named after the famous French writer who visited the Giotto frescos in Florence and wrote that he “reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations…everything spoke so vividly to my soul,” over a hundred cases have been reported among visitors at the Uffizi Gallery Museum in Florence.

Elkins’ book is also a reminder of how often that powerful physical response is purposefully quelled. When Elkins asked his art professional colleagues if they had ever cried in front of a painting, most of them dismissed a response of that intensity as unprofessional. A few acknowledged that it had happened to them when they were young, before they became a credentialed “art professional.”

Any person who willingly allows herself be broken wide open by an object, an experience or a concept may be one definition of an artist. But a recent study conducted at Stanford suggests that this overwhelming response is more than just an emotional reaction. There are many benefits resulting from experiencing a sense of awe.

From a description of the study by the Association for Psychological Science:

It doesn’t matter what we’ve experienced—whether it’s the breathtaking scope of the Grand Canyon, the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis, or the exhilarating view from the top of the Eiffel Tower—at some point in our lives we’ve all had the feeling of being in a complete and overwhelming sense of awe.

Awe seems to be a universal emotion, but it has been largely neglected by scientists—until now.

Psychological scientists Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management devised a way to study this feeling of awe in the laboratory. Across three different experiments, they found that jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.

The researchers found that the effects that awe has on decision-making and well-being can be explained by awe’s ability to actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down. Experiences of awe help to brings us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.

That’s bad news for any art types who willfully turned off their awesomeness meter, but it is great news for the rest of us. The many ancillary benefits of awe are reasons enough for all of us to let it rip!

(For a quick and breathtaking celebration at the biological advantage of being awestruck, check out this video by Jason Silva.)

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The New York Times named five novels as the best of 2013. Amazingly, two of them—both written by women—are about art and art making: The Flamethrowers*, by Rachel Kushner, and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I was enchanted by both.

While Kushner’s novel takes place in the art world emerging around Soho in the 70′s and the Red Brigade years in Italy, Tartt places her tale in a post-9/11 world. Her novel begins with a terrorist explosion in the Metropolitan Museum that takes the life of the mother of the book’s lead character, a twelve year old named Theo Decker. He escapes the wreckage with a small painting in his satchel, the tiny 17th century Dutch masterpiece of a bird chained at his foot: The Goldfinch painted by Carel Fabritius**.

From this starting point Tartt unfolds an orphan’s tale that blends the 19th century charm of Charles Dickens and the Bildungsroman genre with very American and contemporary themes: East/West tension (large stretches of the book compare the various worlds of Park Avenue and the Village in New York City with the foreclosed wasteland of suburban Las Vegas), the lost boys archetype, addiction, materialistic obsession, and the arcane international underworld of the Russian mafia. But amid these familiar memes Tartt keeps a thread taut: art has a power, mystery and immortality all its own. And although our lives are often broken and wildly out of whack, any of us can and are touched deeply and personally by great works of art.

From Ron Charlesreview in the Washington Post:

The Victorian tenor of this thoroughly modern novel isn’t reflected only in its extended plot and vast collection of memorable characters. You can also feel that 19th-century spirit in the author’s willingness to take advantage of her enormous canvas to reflect self-consciously on moral and aesthetic concerns that so many contemporary fiction writers are too timid or too sophisticated to address directly. Free will and fate, pragmatic morality and absolute values, an authentic life and a dutiful one — those fusty old terms spring to life in an extended passage of philosophical trompe l’oeil as Theo expounds with the authority of a man who has suffered, who knows why the chained bird sings. Through years of guilt and drug-dulled pain, experience has taught him that loving something sublime can soothe “the writhing loneliness of life.” The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death.

Without sounding preachy or pedantic, Tartt aligns the essential importance of art with our troubled and existential world. As the book comes to a close Theo articulates his hard won understanding of that. This passage is a memorable one:

The bird looks out at us. It’s not idealized or humanized. It’s very much a bird. Watchful. Resigned. There’s no moral or story. There’s no resolution,. There’s only a double abyss: between painter and imprisoned bird; between the record he left of the bird and our experience of it, centuries later…

I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at last my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature.

And this passage, a simple description of where art resides:

I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

*For more about The Flamethrowers, read this Slow Muse post, This Flashing Present.

**The actual painting hangs in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer. While famous in his own lifetime, he died very young in the famous Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 that destroyed a great deal of the city. Most of his works were also lost in that catastrophe.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (7-107, LA III), 1998, oil on linen on panel, 22×28” (Photo: BOMB Magazine)

[Note: Here is another post I have pulled up out of the Slow Muse archive from 2012. I am still a bit ham-handed from my surgery and typing is hard so I have been revisiting posts that speak to me right now. This one is full of words and ideas that are worth revisiting. I hope you think so too.

Also, just a heads up that I will be out of town for a week. I am going to DC to spend time with my beautiful new (and my first!) grandchild, Siena Wilcox. I'll be back home and musing slowly on February 3.]

Thomas Nozkowski is an artist I have greatly admired for some time. The review of his show at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery by his long time friend John Yau, A Truly Subversive Artist Is Not Necessarily Someone Who Is Theatrical or Gimmicky is worth reading in its entirety. (The title alone is so great. Thank you John Yau.)

Another great article is an interview in BOMB Magazine between Nozkowski and the writer Francine Prose. These two intelligent, thoughtful artists share a conversation about art and art making that is refreshingly authentic, generous and “art world pretension”-free. Nozkowski is articulate about things that are often glossed over or flattened down to the usual clichés. His words have depth, amplitude, and the evidence of having thought through these issues for a long period of time.

As Prose states in her introduction, she was eager to interview Tom Nozkowski so that she might finally begin to understand what makes his paintings “so beautiful, mysterious, surprising and unique, so simultaneously and paradoxically whimsical and haunting.” The process of speaking with him only intensified and deepened the mystery of his work for her, the finest compliment IMHO. (I also admire Prose for saying this to Nozkowski about art reportage: “I read all those articles and essays that critics have written about you, and I have to tell you I didn’t understand a single word. It made me realize that the reason I started writing art criticism was because I couldn’t understand it.”)

One of the first topics they discuss is about Nozkowski’s long passion for the painting by Pisanello, Legend of St. Eustache. He remembered first seeing the painting in London many years ago and being deeply moved by it:

TN: I don’t know how to describe the feeling, but it was as if I knew why every stroke was made. Every color, every shape. I thought it profoundly moving…I was trying to find out why those elements work.

FP: So did you figure it out?

TN: No, not in specifics. I mean, if you could figure it out, it would lose a lot of its magic. You’d possess it too closely. What I did come to understand was the possibility of working out of a feeling rather than a formal direction. There are a few very modest structural reasons for any of the forms and colors in that particular painting being where they are. They seem inevitable for another reason…

There are paintings that speak directly and privately to you. And it has to do with who you are. As a painter, I’m interested in painterly solutions, things that painters do… I think painters go to museums with different agendas and goals. You go to find solutions for your own problems and your own aspirations.

Pisanello’s Legend of St. Eustache

In another exchange about the more general experience of making art:

FP: Do you have any sense of what would be the ideal response to one of your paintings?

TN: If someone was able to look at a painting of mine for a period of time, to go with it and spin out some kind of logical—for lack of a better word—story from it, I don’t expect much more than that. The central fact of our lives, of any artist’s life, are the thousands upon thousands of hours we spend alone staring at these damn things, thinking about them. We sit there, and these things just go on, and on, and on. Everything in the world ties into them, everything that’s crossed your mind while you’re working on it. And, if somebody could just get a sense of that fullness in a work of art, it’s working, you’re on the right track. Ultimately, the one thing that a work of art is about, is the fact that a human being did it. That’s what’s extraordinary, and what’s wonderful.

FP: But Tom, you can look at really crappy art and think: A human being did that, too.

TN: Art objects are gifts. Sometimes you get a lousy gift, and sometimes you get a great gift. The more complex and the more interesting the art is, the more it gives you.

Always grateful for those great ones that pass through…

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