Aesthetics

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“Book for Architects,” by Wolfgang Tillmans (Photo: Francesco Galli)

Over the past ten years, I have photographed buildings in ordinary and extraordinary contexts in thirty-seven countries on five continents. Displaying the complexity and the irrationality—sometimes madness—and at other times the beauty of architecture, these pictures in their totality seem to me a little daunting but have always been taken with a kind eye. I’m aware that architecture is an expression of desires, hopes, and ambitions as well as myriad practical needs and limitations that shape a structure’s design. I am fascinated by the infinite number of formal and structural solutions, seen en masse and the world over, that human logic found for similar problems.

Book for Architects is not a book design for a video installation, presented as a looped projection of still images on two walls. My interest is not a typological examination but to show a sequence and an arrangement of images that echo what examples of the built environment look and feel like to me. I don’t use wide-angle or shift lenses but a standard lens that most closely approximates the perspective of the human eye. The various elements of architecture appear here at times clearly and cleanly and at other times in a layered and convoluted way. As such, the installation represents, and emulates, the randomness, beauty and imperfection that characterizes the built realty, both past and present.

—Introduction to Book for Architects, by Wolfgang Tillmans

I’m a long time fan of the wide ranging talents of photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. His installation at the Met Museum, Book for Architects, is yet another Tillmansian dive into a particular topic that will permanently change the way you see and perceive that subject going forward.

Probably better known for his cultural documentation and stark portraits, Tillmans states that he has always had an interest in architecture, particularly stemming from his curiosity about the impact of individual decisions in shaping the overall design of a city. “That is my fascination with architecture,” he said. “All these uncoordinated activities that are not part of a master plan, each an expression of lived reality, each extracting itself from control, from design.”

Book for Architects is a curated assemblage of nearly 500 photographs that runs in an hour long loop on two screens. The content is focused on the built environment of our earth from every possible angle, and the images range from street scenes, aerial views, interiors, facades, landscaping, architectural details—every way in which humans have altered the world. Some images appear alone, others are grouped according to subtle themes of intention, texture, color, form. Very few people are captured in these images, just our extremely random and often infuriating footprint. And no soundtrack accompanies this survey, leaving us to sit in the dark silence with nothing but stark, large screen projections of the strange world we have created for ourselves.

And those images are, as Tillmans has stated, daunting. Our built environment is irrational, lacking in coherence and logic, and often horrifically ugly. But Book for Architects is no jeremiad to idiocy and bad design. It has a “here’s the facts” objectivity, whether the image is the tangle of pipes and wires exploding out from a wall or a nightmarish sea of high rise buildings warehousing human beings in a cold, treeless world. Tillmans’ assertion that he took these photographs with a “kind eye” is the essential baseline for viewing this unique cavalcade of images. Working from a detached neutrality, Tillmans invites each of us to see our world differently. In thinking about my upcoming trip to China in a few weeks, I can already feel how my experience of that landscape will be altered thanks to Tillmans’ eye.

Book for Architects is at the Met through July 5.

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Of all the poets who delve into writing, creativity and the nature of art making, Jane Hirschfield is the closest to my way of seeing things. I go back to her books over and over again. Now another to add to my library: Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry. These three essays were delivered as part of the Newcastle/Bookaxe Poetry Lecture series in 2007.

Those three words—hiddenness, uncertainty and surprise—are fundamental elements in my studio practice. As is usually the case, Hirschfield’s explorations are salient to poetry as well other creative efforts. Her strong interest in Eastern thought and meditation also spills over into the inner life as well.

The first chapter on hiddenness is full of relevance. That which contains the hidden—a poem, a painting, a musical score—is “inexhuastible to the imagination,” Hirschfield writes. “It is their inability to be known completely that infuses aliveness into good poems.” Poet Donald Hall has used the analogy of a house that has a secret room at its center. That’s the place where that which cannot be paraphrased or verbalized is stored. That room can never be used for ordinary habitation but its very presence changes the house. That unopenable room does not exist in the world or in the work of art itself: It resides in each of us. And yet the very existence of that secret room changes everything.

In the course of her contemplation of hiddenness, Hirschfield asks a biologist friend about her views of how it plays out in nature. I loved the answer she received: “For most of life on the planet, being hidden is the default condition…visibility is a luxury. Rarely are earth-colored tones the symbols of opulence and royal blood. We are most comfortable being hidden but we yearn to be seen.” (This is the biological version of the often quoted description of an artist from the writer and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”)

A few more memorable passages from the first essay, “Poetry and Hiddenness:”

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“Heard melodies are sweet,” wrote Keats, “but those unheard are sweeter.” A fidelity to the ungraspable lies at the very root of both biological existence and what we experience as beauty; the steepest pitches of the heart and mind make their own shade. Within that cool and dimness, emotions and thoughts small as new mosses and lichens begin the slow, green colonisations of incipient life.

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Hiddenness, then, is a sheltering enclosure—though one we stand some times outside of, at others within. One of its homes is the Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto: wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds that something unknonwable is always present in a life, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended…it is our subjectivity of stance, not the world, that creates the unknown.

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Hiddenness is the ballast in the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest. The thirteenth-century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen described its weight of presence thus: “…there are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. This complete understanding.”

More about Jane Hirschfield on Slow Muse:

It’s the Honey

Silky Attention

A Truing of Vision

Safekeeping the Not Knowing

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

Necessary Wildness

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Spirit and Body

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

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Imagined map of the word, Japanese

I am reading a book recommended by my daughter Kellin Nelson: The Art of Thinking Clearly, by Rolf Dobelli. It’s designed with the 21st century reader in mind—succinct, straight talking advice on rampantly human cognitive errors in 99 chapters, each only a few pages long.

Dobelli nails all of us right from the start by detailing those pesky proclivities that flaw our thinking and perceiving. The chapter heads capture much of the spirit of the book: If Fifty Million People Say Something Foolish, It Is Still Foolish; Why We Prefer a Wrong Map to None at All; Why You Systematically Overestimate Your Knowledge and Abilities; Never Judge a Decision By Its Outcome. You get the drift.

In talking about the “confirmation bias,” Dobelli writes:

If the word “exception” crops up, prick up your ears. Often it hides the presence of discomfirming evidence. It pays to listen to Charles Darwin: Since his youth, he set out to fight the confirmation bias systematically. Whenever observations contradicted his theory, he took them very seriously and noted them down immediately. He know that the brain actively “forgets” disconfirming evidence after a short time. The more correct he judged his theory to be, the more actively he looked for contradictions…

Literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch had a memorable motto: “Murder your darlings.” This was his advice to writers who struggled with cutting cherished but redundant sentences. Quiller-Couch’s appeal is not just for hesitant hacks but for all of us who suffer from the deafening silence of assent. To fight against the confirmation bias, try writing down your beliefs—whether in terms of worldview, investments, marriage, health care, diet, career strategies—and set out to find disconfirming evidence. Axing beliefs that feel like old friends is hard work but imperative.

After several hours of Dobelli’s direct imperative to dismantle the cozy comfort zones we make with our ideas and beliefs, it is hard to not step back a bit and look more closely at your cherished beliefs, proclivities and tastes. We give ourselves permission to set standards and issue judgments, and we do it all day long. Reading Dobelli has reminded me that we each pave a road through the landscape, and all we see is what is on either side of that narrow travel lane.

So “murdering my darlings” plays out in so many aspects of my life. I know what I like after all, be it in art, literature, music, poetry, food. Dismantling those habitual proclivities takes some doing, but the exercise is not without its rewards.

A recent theatrical outing is a good example. American Rep has staged another production by the high energy, high octane theater company from Chicago, Hypocrites. Last year they brought their very popular production of the Pirates of Penzance (reviewed on Slow Muse here) to A.R.T., and this year they have brought another Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Mikado.

They state their intentions openly:

Our mission – which is ever-evolving to adapt to the growth of our organization – is to make a Theater of Honesty. We define a Theater of Honesty chiefly through two elements of our work: performance and presentation…Through this balance of an unyielding emotional honesty and accepting a concept of “play,” we seek to strengthen the connection between artist and audience, enriching our audience’s imaginative experience…

We will make theater.
We will respect the audience.
We will create a unique theater experience for every production.
We will push our own limits in order to push the limits of theater.
We will honor the playwright’s intentions.
We will hold interest in entertainment and art.
We will change these rules.

Like Pirates, The Mikado is just plain fun. The “all singing and all dancing” cast carries out this wacky G&S storyline amid the audience members and engages everyone in the high jinks effortlessly. Yes, I do happen to love the deep dives into dramatic profundity and the magic of a parallel reality that great theater can create. But by making a concerted decision (thank you Dobelli) to just let all those proclivities go and enjoy a night of being entertained and delighted, I was. Wonderfully.

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The Mikado (Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

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Claerwen James
Claerwen James (Photo: London Evening Standard)

Every artist has a personal story of how she ended up spending a lifetime doing this thing that is all-consuming. It’s a strange decision really, that willingness to give yourself over to a passion that takes hold as soon as you awake and stays resident, in background or foreground, all day long. Sometimes its ambient and seamless dominance feels comforting, like a familiar chair that has formed perfectly to the body. At other times its demand for bandwidth devours access to the practical concerns of life, like keeping track of when the chimney was last cleaned (we used ours so often this winter, maybe too much?) or where the title to the car is filed.

Claerwen James, daughter of the inimitable Clive James, answered the following two questions in a recent interview. I resonated with her answers to both of these questions, and I found her point of view very much in line with the sense of art making and life I have explored in Slow Muse: A longing and respect for the very act of making, an aversion to art-speak, learning from what doesn’t work, and painting with your guts rather than your head.

You trained as a zoologist and molecular biologist – why did you switch to art?

I had always drawn and painted, but felt I had no subject matter. I liked making things, but I didn’t know what to make. Then over the course of a couple of years I began to have ideas about things I wanted to make, and I stopped having ideas about biology – it just happened, it wasn’t a conscious decision and it became clear. I stopped being a scientist when I was 28, when I finished my PhD. I haven’t kept up with it—it’s not something you can do part-time. It has to be an all-consuming passion. But I think I retain the mind-set: I don’t like waffle and I’m allergic to art-speak, which is a bit of a handicap.

What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?

I got two good pieces of advice when I was training at the Slade. One was from Bernard Cohen who was director of the Slade at the time. During a lecture he said, ‘Don’t have an abstract idea or an agenda that you’re trying to communicate through a painting: make it because you want to make it, because you want to know what it will look like, and this is the only way to find out.’ That resonated with me – or rather, it felt like permission to work the way I wanted to work. The other piece of advice was actually given to someone in the studio space next to me during a tutorial on which I was unavoidably eavesdropping. It was to ‘paint more, a lot more, much faster, because you’ve got a lot of bad paintings in you and you’ve got to get them all out.’ It was by far the most useful practical advice I ever heard, because there is a tendency to agonize about the meaning or validity of what you are doing before you’ve even started that is not helpful… You need to paint to some extent with your guts rather than your head.

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Robert Irwin

The one and only Robert Irwin, saying it in his inimitable plain speak:

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Some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

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It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

I come back to these favorite quotes constantly, holding them as a talismanic reminder of what really matters in a creative practice. Those of us who are about that work make assessments every day, repeatedly. Is this coming together? Is this moving? Is it taking on a life of its own? Maybe you get some feedback, a review or a useful critique. But in the end the process is personal, private and subjective.

The same thing happens out in the world. Some work “jumps off the goddamn wall” at me, and some does not. Walking through a museum with a friend, we each assemble our list of those that speak to us. Sometimes we overlap, but I am often surprised by the variety. What’s more, my list changes a lot over time, depending on where my attention has been pulling me.

I know this proclivity to the subjective puts me on a slippery slope. The canonical approach—works that are chosen and blessed by those in power—serves as a steadying force in the world, providing standards and guidance in all the flux and chaos. Sometimes I am in alignment with that authoritative vetting process, and sometimes I am not.

Always in the back of my mind are the artists who slipped between the cracks completely but had, in the end, undeniable wall jumping genius: Van Gogh. Henry Darger. Francesca Woodman. Vivian Maier. Ken Price. Each of us could easily add a few more names to that “Overlooked but Great” list since there are so many.

Market forces come and go. So do fads and trends. What remains steady for me through it all is the commitment to just stay curious. It is the mindset I need in my studio and in the world. That one concept is the most powerful antidote I know to tendencies we all struggle with: narrowing categories, drifting into discouragement, thinking we have it all figured out. Staying curious keeps me looking, asking, learning and considering. Better at navigating than the straight up canonical, curiosity is my most valuable tool.

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Staying curious with my own work: My latest painting, “Satha,” 66 x 72,” mixed media on linen

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Ken Price at work (Photo: LACMA)

I am especially fond of an essay written some time ago by William Deresiewicz (author of the recently released Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Learning titled The End of Solitude.

Deresiewicz traces the idea of solitude through history, from the early Greek era through Romanticism, Modernism and now Postmodernism. Turns out solitude has gone in and out of fashion. During certain periods, such as the Romantic age, it was highly valued. At other times, like our own, much less so.

But it is his commentary on our era’s particular proclivities that caught my attention this week:

Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves—by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

That quote spoke directly to two novels I have read recently that feature women artists—The The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (and which I have written about previously here) and The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud.

While very different books by two very different writers (neither of whom has been a visual artist BTW), the female protagonist in each is devoted to her art making but has been unsuccessful in her career. Whether that lack of success is fair or unfair is less to the point of either book; more apropos is that both women have been deeply wounded—perhaps one might even say maimed—by their invisibility in a profession that has become as fickle, youth-centered and image conscious as Hollywood, a world where money and connections matter infinitely more than the once sought after qualities of talent, commitment and vision. As a result, both of these artists are full of rage. The anger in both of these books just seethes out of the pages, like oil from an unwieldy container.

For those of us—and that “us” is legion—who operate below the radar screen of auction houses and blue chip pricing, rage that enormous is not unfamiliar. The old line about the fate of the elderly—you can either be crazy or bitter, pick one—applies to aging artists as well. I have never doubted which one I prefer.

While female and minority artists have been discriminated against in every previous era and mostly overlooked, an artist’s rage at feeling invisible is gender and race blind. In my conversations with artist friends from my days in New York City in the 1970s—practicing artists who are now entering their 6th, 7th and 8th decades of life—this is a topic that invariably comes up. Some say they are, like the graciously non-game playing artist Ken Price, reconciled to living their lives out without visibility and accolades. But others struggle more openly with feeling bitter, and they believe those who don’t acknowledge the same are just masters of denial. Underneath all that talk of not caring they say, every artist harbors a deep hunger to be seen and acknowledged.

It is not my place to dissect the artist’s secret self, but I do believe our era’s particular obsession with visibility is in fact a disability for many who need quiet, solitude, focus and isolation to make their art and do their work. In this high connectivity world, it requires an explicit and concerted effort to carve out that private cave time, to keep the channels that are feeding our process free of noise and clutter. The rest is, in my opinion, a secondary concern.

But saying doesn’t make it so. Our world is our world, and its values are ambient. Thankfully there are heroes like Ken Price. I take pleasure in reading this quote from Dave Hickey‘s essay in Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective, Price’s posthumous show catalog:

There are, of course, actual downsides to working small, strange and far away, up in the high country outside of Taos, but Price has kept his own counsel on these. He tells his friends that he thinks of his time on earth in the studio as a gift, so why ask for more?… “Kenny is very pure,” Billy [Al Bengston] says, “and very stubborn, a poet and a philosopher. He doesn’t care about fame or money.”

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Jake Berthot in 1995. Photo: John Berthot

I know several people who knew Jake Berthot personally. I was not so lucky. But a fan of his work I have been for a long time, and I was deeply saddened to read of his death on December 30. He was 75.

Over the years, reading or listening to an interview with Berthot invariably resonates with me. (Several are available online.) He has often spoken about his journey as an artist with a sincerity and candidness that is becoming increasingly rare. In the class of successful and admired artists, there are few who can steer clear of pandering, posing or playing to the art buying crowd.

It is that honesty that allows him to share his vulnerability which is, in my experience, at the very core of art making I care about most. He has been willing to acknowledge that private part of an artist’s life, the one that is happening constantly during the thousands and thousands of hours spent alone in a studio. Berthot always felt like my kinsman, and by describing his own struggles he was able to put a name on my own. He made me feel less alone, less solitary.

And his paintings. They are so thoughtful and yet not cerebral. Berthot blends intelligent painting and powerful feeling. Standing in front of one of his works I am invariably struck by the herculean intention to bring something deeply authentic into form. Like his hero Paul Cezanne, Berthot is incapable of being vapid or flip. He traveled by foot, simply and steadily. It was always about the work, about gaining access—which sometimes required him to claw his way—into the next valence, to move even closer to the essence of that mysterious and compelling process.

Many obituaries and articles about Berthot’s life and work have appeared over the last few weeks. One of my favorites is by Carl Belz, a tribute that appeared on Left Bank Art Blog. I hope this is just the harbinger of more to come about Berthot and his work.

From interviews and articles, here are a few of my favorite Berthotisms, ones chosen because of the commonality I share with his way of working and seeing the world. If you have a few others that speak to you, I hope you will share them too.

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I can’t do anything but paint. That’s a blessing and a curse, but this is all I can do.

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The paintings I’m doing now, I don’t have any idea about whether they’re good, or bad, or what they are. In many ways that’s a really good place to be. These are the hardest paintings I’ve ever done, and the ones I am least sure about. [He said this in 2012!]

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People want art to come to them and it never will. You have to want to go to art.

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Once you get it together you have a choice: you can work within your established parameters and make the paintings that people come to expect you to make, or you can follow the investigation you’re involved in and go where that investigation takes you.

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As a painter you can decide whether you’re going to have a system or a method. Artists like Chuck Close and oy Lichtenstein had a system—they know how to start it and what the end painting will look like.

What I prefer is more like Cezanne. He had a clear method of working but that method was not a closure, but an opening.

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I work from a place of intuited, felt geometry.

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A young painter has to make a connection; the connection that most make is to recent history—as an embrace, rejection, or reaction—then they start to work. One day, after painting for a number of years, this painter walks into his studio and discovers that he is involved with his own history. At that point, the connection he makes with the world changes. Up to that point, he’s trying to connect to the world; after it, the world either connects with him or rejects him, and there is very little he can do about that.

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I reached another point where the idea was closing in on itself, there was too much idea; the paintings started to feel too literal, too much like a figure in space. I wanted something more organic, more felt.

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Second Verse, for instance, was done with a kind of rage; there’s a certain amount of terror in it. That’s when I felt the painting started to dictate what it wanted to be, when the painting became the boss and I became more like a servant to it instead of the other way around.

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I’ve always wanted something given, something to observe, something I could watch and build on without having to find it—kind of like someone who paints a still life or a figure, but I was never satisfied painting subjects like that. I also wanted a form that would be known; if I say square, you know what a square is, and if I say oval, you know what an oval is—I felt I could build on that, make the painting something you experience rather than just see.

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I don’t feel very talented. I feel that I have to work really hard for what I get.

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If you have source, and you believe in that source, then the form will come.

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As Milton Resnick used to say, you have to become the servant to the painting. When you start you are the boss. At that point it is like a thought process, not about feeling. But at a certain point the painting takes over. There is no real “rationale” for what you do, you just have to do it.

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“Room” by Jake Berthot at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection” in 2006. Photo: Keith Bedford for The New York Times

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Looking closely at a recent painting

Robert Hass begins his extraordinary collection, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, talking about the photography of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams:

What the two artists have in common, besides a name, is a certain technical authority. The source of that authority is mysterious to me. But it is that thing in their images that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking. I think it’s something to do with the formal imagination. I don’t know whether photographers find it in the world, or when they look through the viewfinder, or when they work in the darkroom, but the effect is a calling together of all the elements of an image so that the photograph feels like it is both prior to the act of seeing and the act of seeing. Attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention comes to life.

There is so much in this paragraph I find compelling. What actually is the “formal imagination”? And what is that distinction between what happens prior to seeing and the very act itself? Every maker, writer, artist straddles the essential tension of attention and how it comes through us, but it is difficult to describe.

That issue of attention correlates with a passage from Philippa Perry‘s book, How To Stay Sane:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to…The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved…If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up. … The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

After reading that quote, a friend added this insight from the Persian poet حافظ Hafiz: “What we speak (or listen to or believe without questioning) becomes the house we live in.”

The “house we live in” is a perpetual construction site. Our thoughts, attention and actions constellate a space that is our artistic/emotional/spiritual/ consciousness habitation. While Hafiz is being metaphorical, the power of the form around the form—the self inside its house—has been particularly visceral for me as we live through the chaos of renovating the back rooms of our IRL home.

Through it all, what matters is how to bring something substantial into existence. I am reminded of literary critic Christopher Ricks‘s litmus test for how to recognize value in art: “That which continues to repay attention.”

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Eliasson at work (Photo: Nigel Shafran)

Over the last eight years, Slow Muse has been my way of advocating for the experience—and the making—of art that is earnest and sincere. In many ways this is a kind of “outsider” positioning, one that has sidestepped the predominant and pervasive zone of irony the way non-pedigree outsider artists have sidestepped traditional academic art training.

But when someone with the stature and recognition factor of Olafur Eliasson takes up the cause—“Is irony really the economy I want to support?” he asks—it does add weight to the cause.

A recent article about Eliasson appeared in the New York Times’ T Magazine (their “Style” publication…OK, yes, I am sensing your smirk) by Ned Beauman is full of so many great quotes. So whether coverage of Eliasson belongs in the style section or not, I’m going with a win/win.

Here’s a few, each one a gem:

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If, like me, you operate under the assumption that irony is automatically more sophisticated than earnestness, it is confounding to enter Eliasson’s world…Irony is almost always a safe bet here [in Berlin], not least in the expat art scene. So you arrive at Studio Olafur Eliasson with certain expectations, and when you find that, on the contrary, it is one of the most earnest places you have ever been, you start looking around for the cracks.

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There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.

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And yet the longer I spent with Eliasson, the harder I found it to cling to my cynicism, because he’s such a good advertisement for sincerity. One of Eliasson’s friends, the author Jonathan Safran Foer, told me over the phone that he found spending time with Eliasson “overwhelming, whether overwhelming in the sense of at times feeling almost too much, or overwhelming in the sense of being really moving…“After I’ve spent an hour with him I feel like I need a nap, but it’s because he has more curiosity than anyone I’ve ever met, and a greater belief in a person’s ability to be useful and to change things. Somehow he lives his entire life with the urgency of someone who just walked out of the doctor’s office with a dire prognosis.”

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“If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon,” he told me. “So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition. . . . The art world underestimates its own relevance when it insists on always staying inside the art world. Maybe one can take some of the tools, methodologies, and see if one can apply them to something outside the art world.”

(To my Italian friends, sorry about the hard knocks on doing anything in Italy…)

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If there isn’t much irony at Studio Olafur Eliasson, I came to feel, it’s not because irony is proscribed. Irony doesn’t offend anyone and it doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Irony is simply not required, because the things you can achieve with crusading sincerity are self-evidently so much better.

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For Eliasson, art need never be marginal, and art need never be just a carrier for a message. Art can change the world with the sheer intensity of its art-ness.

***

“People underestimate how robust art is.” He added: “If we don’t believe that creativity as a language can be as powerful as the language of the politicians, we would be very sad — and I would have failed. I am convinced that creativity is a fierce weapon.”

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Jack Whitten (Photo: Rose Art Museum)

Yesterday I attended a symposium on the “status and stakes” of painting today. Most of the speakers were academics—art historians and curators whose business it is to categorize, systemize and prognosticate on where the world of art has been and where it is trending before it actually does.

These are concepts that hold a kind of intellectual interest for me. But I am also aware that they exist quite distinct from the day-to-day business of my life and work in the studio.

The most heartening takeaway for me was a ubiquitous agreement by all that painting is very much alive, thriving, and once again at the center of contemporary art discourse. For those of us old enough to have lived through the “painting is dead” pronouncements that started in the early 1960s and suffered through years of being asked why we did something so anachronistic as painting, there is bit of a self-congratulatory, “told you so” moment. But as one of the speakers put it, painting never stopped during those years, it just got elbowed out of the art hot seat as new forms like conceptual, performance, installation, new media and anti-art art took center stage. Katy Siegel, Curator-at-Large at Brandeis University, made the point that the popularity of painting today cannot be explained simply by market demand. There’s more to this resurgence than just commercialism and consumer demand. For someone who got the call at age 17 and has spent her life working in this form (that would be me), the answer is obvious.

When theorists gather, a lot of time gets spent on words, meaning, signifiers, subtexts, referents. Discussion about what the term “painting” means today is robust as that category keeps expanding beyond something that exists on canvas over stretcher bars. The usefulness of old standby words like “abstraction”, “artist”, “painter” have changed considerably and may not be serviceable in the current circumstances. ( Siegel said her students today eschew all the existing definitions and simply say, “I make stuff.”) Suzanne Hudson, USC professor and author of Painting Now (available in March 2015), reminded us of Leo Steinberg‘s open definition of painting as “any receptor surface on which objects are scattered.” She also finished her thoughtful remarks with a well known quote by Robert Ryman about how art progresses not through organized movements but because “everyone has to take little bites, little pieces of it and work on that.”

Energy flooded back in the room for me when artist Jack Whitten claimed his wise elder status and stepped into a whole lot of theorizing to keep the very act of art making central to the discussion. “Painting is hard work. When I am in my cave—that’s what I call my studio—I cannot see where I am going. It’s just blind man’s bluff in there…We do what we do out of necessity, and it comes out of our own world. I can see a work in my brain, and making the painting is a reproduction of that concept. It is moving something from the inside to the outside. It is scary and it is hard.”

Thank you Jack for bringing the essence back into this never ending, multi-faceted conversation. His timely interjection reminded me of another wise elder, John Cage, when he addressed the inchoateness of creation and making:

We were artisans; now we’re the observers of miracles. All you have to do is go straight on, leaving the path at any moment, and to the right or to the left, coming back or never, coming in, of course, out of the rain.

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John Cage (Photo: Tucson Sentinel)

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