Aesthetics

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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.

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“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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One room from “The Visitors”, by Ragnar Kjartansson

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Installation view (Photo: Agostino Osio, courtesy Fondazione Hangarbicocca)


The Clock, a video montage/art installation by Christian Marclay, artfully stitched together 24 hours’ worth of vignettes with references to time. Stipulated by Marclay to only be viewed in perfect synch with real time, The Clock‘s sequences are extracted from our collective cultural consciousness of movie and television. Those images, as if from a collective dream, are haunting and mesmerizing.

The power and genius of Marclay’s project took me completely by surprise. And like many of my friends, I endeavored to view as much of the full cycle of The Clock as possible while it was available at the MFA in Boston in 2011.

So it is high time—for me anyway—to be seduced and enchanted by another video piece. I have found a candidate for that at the ICA in Boston: The Visitors, by Ragnar Kjartansson.

The set up is simple enough. Eight screens each show scruffy, casually attired musicians in different rooms in a massive, “shabby chic” mansion in the Hudson Valley. (Kjartansson himself is in a bathroom, sitting with his guitar in a tub of water.) Wired with headphones, they collaborate together on one song that winds its way through most of the hour-long video.

Like The Clock, The Visitors is an exploration into the mystery and often ineffable way we humans connect and assemble a sense of ourselves. Both of these projects exist in a zone between the narrative and the non-narrative, a zone that allows for something new to emerge.

In his review in the Boston Globe, Sebastian Smee called The Visitors a generational masterpiece, one that “may even be remembered as having helped trigger a change in the climatic conditions of contemporary art.”

Aside from anything else, “The Visitors” is a triumph of tone. Alive to the preposterousness of its premise—a bunch of hipster musicians from Iceland squatting in a grand home on the Hudson…in order to perform a repetitive, rather unremarkable song—it somehow transforms latent irony into sincere and open-hearted expression…

It presents itself as slackerishly devoid of ambition, but “The Visitors”…actually heaves with a yearning for beauty, an ache for love. The ache is powered, of course, by nostalgia, but also by an urgent, aesthetic desire to throw off something felt as too much in the way of today’s artists: the burden of intellect.

In a setting that is not so much dissonant as ill-fitting—suggestive of an artistic inheritance so grand it can only be awkward—it posits the possibility of an escape from the cul-de-sac of too much history, too much civilization—and not least, too much critical thinking. It posits the possibility of a foray into true feeling.

I would recommend investing the time to watch this entire experience unfold. The last scene is masterfully poignant, and it achieves its finality without dropping into the manipulative or artificed.* That image—and the aura of the entire The Visitors experience—is now mine to revisit over and over again.

The Visitors is on display at the ICA through November 2.

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*I just want to make this point: Artifice is an essential element of any artifact—be it a painting or a video—but it is in the gradations and subtleties that we are transported past that barrier of the craftedness of a work and into experiences that feel real and authentic. That is an issue I believe a maker confronts every day, with every work.

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RD

My friend Joshua Baer writes about wine with more creativity than anyone I know. (His reviews appear monthly in Santa Fe’s THE Magazine, and all his columns can be found on One Bottle.) Last month he blended a review of 2012 Comte Abbatucci Rosé “Cuvée Faustine” with his admiration for the artist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993.)

Our mutual admiration for Diebenkorn (who we affectionately refer to as just plain “Dick”, or RD) runs deep. Joshua’s father, the well respected California photographer Morley Baer, knew Diebenkorn and actually photographed some of his paintings for him. Joshua and I share vignettes about RD and his life like kids with trading cards.

In a tribute that appeared in the New Yorker right after RD’s death, Adam Gopnik wrote about the Diebenkorn legacy in words that still feel resonant twenty years later. Yes, RD’s Ocean Park #48 sold for $13,250,000 at a Christie’s auction two years ago. But during his life, RD was pretty much dismissed by the East coast art cartel. When I arrived in Manhattan in the early 70s, few of the artists with whom I became friends even knew who he was. Given the influence RD had had on my work as a young West Coast art student, I found this disregard unsettling.

In his 1993 article, Gopnik references several of the RD obituaries that had just appeared. In one RD was described as a “poet of sunny spaciousness.”

The obituaries were typical of the slightly backhanded compliments that Diebenkorn had been getting for most of his career. Americans don’t want their painters to be affectionately regarded—we mostly like them tetchy and transcendental—and “sunny spaciousness” sounds more like something we ask of an apartment than of an abstract master. Even “lyrical painter” is one of those winking epithets—like “scrappy infielder,” hardworking comedian,” or “sensitive art critic”—which are really code for “not so hot.”

As one art critic had previously framed his take on RD, “Kenneth Noland is a shark; Diebenkorn is a little goldfish.”

Presaging by 20 years the eventual rewrite of the West Coast’s influence on American art brought about by the 200+ venue mega-exhibit, Pacific Standard Time, Gopnik makes the case that Diebenkorn was in fact a key figure in that transformation of California from “provincial backwater to an artmaking capital equal to New York.” But he also acknowledges how slow others were to see that influence clearly:

His best paintings, the “Ocean Park” series were begun in the late sixties, when the ideological thuggery that has dominated New York art criticism ever since was just coming into being. Mannerism produces ideologues the way civil wards produce refugees: an art in which everything is held in quotation marks demands one gang of commentators to untangle its allusions and another gang of commentators to mock the first. Diebenkorn was patronized, or just ignored, by the ideological thugs of the left and encumbered with praise by the ideological thugs on the right…They admired his work for its absences, for all that it didn’t include (explicit political or ironic content, the more obvious kinds of pop imagery), and thereby left an impression, which may be hard to erase, of Diebenkorn as a Malibu Matisse.

Gopnik speaks to the influence of Matisse on RD’s work—which is certainly valid—but he shifts gears and makes the case that Diebenkorn is actually much more in the tradition of Cézanne:

Cézanne, unique among the masters, was utterly square. Diebenkorn, the perfect representative of a culture without irony, was square, too, but he managed to be square without being corny, which is a nice way of remaining classic. This unbending classical sincerity—a Cézannist quality—-radiated from the man, and it was a trait that his friends most often admired and recalled.

In spite of the current proclivity to report on art that feasts on irony morning, noon and night, there are many of us who are more drawn to that sphere of “unbending classical sincerity.” And if anyone can make being square the coolest compliment ever, it would be RD.

Call me square, PLEASE.

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Richard Diebenkorn in front of Ocean Park #59, Ashland and Main studio, Santa Monica, 1972 (Photo: Gilbert Lloyd Courtesy: Orange County Museum of Art)

More posts on Slow Muse about RD:

The Shape-Making Impulse

State of Paint

This Flashing Present

Diebenkorn’s Fields of Silence

Pacific Standard Time: Proof at the Norton Simon Museum

Pacific Standard Time: Begin the Rewrite

The Other Coast, Reconsidered

Left Coast Report

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“When Pressure Exceeds Weight VI,” by Richard Tuttle (2012) (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Universal Limited Art Editions)

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“In Praise of Historical Determinism I, II, III,” by Richard Tuttle (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Brooke Alexander)

Richard Tuttle: A Print Retrospective at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is a sophisticated, intelligent, inventive, provocative and exuberant exploration of over 40 years’ worth of printmaking by one of the great living artists of our time. Famously gifted in an ability to see around, under and behind a thing in a way that repeatedly surprises and delights those of us who follow his work closely, Richard Tuttle is the perfect candidate to playfully dismantle the tradition-bound world of printmaking. This show upends the orthodoxy of woodcuts, wood engravings, lithography, intaglio, colographs and monoprints, and the results reveal a great deal about Tuttle’s artistic practice and the way he thinks.

I have been a Tuttle fan most of my art making life. His show at the Whitney Museum in 1975 took place right after I arrived in New York City from California, and it was one of those life changing experiences for me. Controversial and bravely stated, that show cost curator Marcia Tucker her job. But it also gave many of us a paragon for how the visually playful and simple can express an Eastern philosophical sensibility—demonstrated simply by a nailed segment of white twine that took stewardship of an entire wall. Tuttle’s work has spoken to me directly and personally ever since. (A list of previous Slow Muse posts about Tuttle is included below.)

Since that show in 1975 there have been many other exhibits, most recently the massive retrospective mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Art in 2005 (which, in a sweet coming full circle, also made its way to the Whitney.) In many ways however this show at Bowdoin offers even more transparency into Tuttle’s work than the others. With over 100 pieces on display, you are able to track his tireless eye and perpetually investigative mind at work.

This exhibit exposes in meticulous detail how Tuttle breaks things down, the way he pulls something wide open and then allows another something quite exquisite to emerge from the most unexpected shards of that dismantling. An early woodcut was created using magic markers. A series of intaglio prints incorporates the ubiquitous tarlatan (the special cloth traditionally used to carefully wipe ink from a plate) as a tiny grid matrix that is brought into the composition as an unexpected flourish. Plates are cut into shapes and the edges become lines in the composition. Paper pulp and other elements go into the press along with the plate, sometimes squeezing out the sides and extending the shape outside the familiar rectilinear form. This isn’t a slackerish disregard for technique but an exuberant celebration of pressing and pressure, another way to extend the dimensions and capabilities of the printing press itself.

The curatorial text is very well done. Unlike the common proclivity to “explain” the art and to dumb things down to the lowest common demoninator, the wall words in this exhibit are respectful, informed and enhancing. Thank you for that curators Christina von Rotenhan and Joachim Homann.

Does a trip to Maine need additional incentives? I think not!

The show, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick Maine (about a 2.5 hour drive from Boston), is on view through October 19, 2014.

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More about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

The Tuttle Bump

Martian Muse and Richard Tuttle

Vogel 50 x 50

Scale it Up, Scale it Down

Tuttle Therapy

Textilia

Go Broad, or Go Deep

Richard Tuttle at Sperone Westwater

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In his essay on Pierre Bonnard, The Art of Making a World (included in his book, Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa), Michael Kimmelman relates a conversation he once had with the photographer Cartier-Bresson. While viewing a self-portrait by Bonnard, Cartier-Bresson said, “You know, Picasso didn’t like Bonnard and I can imagine why, because Picasso had no tenderness. It is only a very flat explanation to say that Bonnard is looking in a mirror in this painting. He’s looking far, far beyond. To me he is the greatest painter of the century. Picasso was a genius, but that is something quite different.”

Kimmelman goes on to quote Picasso on the topic of Bonnard: “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting, what he does…Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a question of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.”

In many ways Picasso and Bonnard inhabited two extremes of the painting spectrum. During the era when both of them were working, Bonnard was the one who was out of step, painting works that were too soft compared to the structured detachment of cubism. Many saw Bonnard as an impressionist working after impressionism was past, an anachronism caught up in his search for the elusive beauty of paradise.

With time, respect for Bonnard’s vision has steadily grown. He is not the marginalized artist Picasso dismissed but someone whose body of work speaks to a modern viewer with power and meaning. “These works crystallize what has always been Bonnard’s primary mood, that of elegy,” writes Sarah Whitfield in Bonnard. “He has often been described as a painter of pleasure, but he is not a painter of pleasure. He is a painter of the effervescence of pleasure and the disappearance of pleasure.” That is a sense of life that speaks to contemporary viewers.

I had a similar experience of how time shifts our view while reading Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, by Gabrielle Selz. Gabrielle, daughter of art critic/historian Peter Selz, is a gifted writer and has captured a slice of art world life both in New York City and on the West Coast (her father was chief curator at MOMA before moving to open the Berkeley Museum in California). Her charismatic father befriended many major artists—Mark Rothko, Max Beckmann, Karel Appel, Alberto Giacometti, Christo, Carolee Schneeman, among others—but that glitterati world also had its dark side of bad parenting, bad partnering and a whole lot of that 60s self indulgence. This isn’t a name dropping, “lifestyles of the rich and famous” memoir. It is the story of a complicated life told with intelligence and evenhandedness. I never lost interest in her or her world, a significant feat for any memoirist.

Gabrielle is a few years younger than me, but our lives run along many parallels. Like me, she was bi-coastal in the 60s and 70s, observing the art world both in New York and in the Bay Area. We lived just a few blocks from each other in New York City, and we even attended the same university, UC Santa Cruz. She had a front row seat however, and her account offered a more intimate view of events I remember but observed from the periphery.

There might have been a time in my life when being an insider like Gabrielle would have seemed desirable. But not now. I have come to see that there are people who are outsiders by nature. For me, I’m more interested in the weeds that grow beyond the edge of the well manicured green. Like Bonnard, I have come to believe that you can find and create your enchantment anywhere, on any terms.

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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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