Art Making

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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.”


Simone Weil


Eva Hesse

The writer Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34. In spite of her short life, her legacy is a rich one, spanning a variety of métiers including philosophy, Christianity, theology, social justice, mysticism. And even though her life’s work was from her point of view of a god-centered believer, the atheist icon Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.”

Another young German woman, the artist Eva Hesse, also died at the age of 34. Like Weil, her short life had more than its fair share of difficulty and suffering. Also similar is the world’s steadily increasing interest in her body of work. With only a ten year career, Hesse was influential in the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Writing about a recent retrospective of her work, art historian Arthur Danto addressed “the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material…Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy…Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.”

I am amazed by the legacy of both of these women even though their work is not similar in nature or outlook. Each achieved extraordinary depth during lives that were improbably and tragically shortened. Spending time with either body of work is a sober reminder that suffering is perennial and life is short. That what you do each day is what matters most.

“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering,” Weil wrote.

Christian Wiman, also an admirer of Weil, responded to this statement in his essay Love Bade Me Welcome:

I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable…I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

That last line is a Taoist-like insight: the need, every day, to break ourselves apart and start fresh. That is a concept that speaks to me deeply.

But is it true, as Wiman claims, that it is not possible to be conscious and comfortable? Maybe it is the word comfortable that leaves me looking for some wiggle room. What about being conscious and accepting, in the spirit of Wendell Berry‘s admonishment to “be joyful though we have considered all the facts.” Still finding my way through that one.

Note: This post first appeared on Slow Muse in 2012.

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View of the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake

One of my favorite stories was told by Laurie Anderson about an interview she conducted with John Cage for the Buddhist publication Tricycle many years ago. A great admirer of Cage, Anderson was desperate to ask him the really BIG question: Are things getting worse or are they getting better?

Cage, ever the sage, responded with a gentle assurance. “Of course things are getting better Laurie. It’s just that it is happening so slowly.”

I have thought of that response so many times over the years. There are small patterns and large ones, and our perceptive skills have difficulty with some of the larger arcs. It’s like the difference between weather and climate: We all know about weather, but we struggle to understand and truly perceive the concept of climate.

One friend refers to this as the “watching the tides” syndrome. As each set of waves comes to shore, big ones intermingle with smaller ones. But the larger pattern of the tides is also happening at the same time. That pattern requires patience and a knowledge of what to look for.

Many arcs of change are operating in our lives all the time. Some have patterns that make them difficult to discern until suddenly they seem to appear fully formed. My personal experience with this kind of surprise is what can happen in the studio. Your old reliable processes can hold you in a perceptual stupor until something emerges that shifts everything. Paying attention to what is a familiar way of working and what is in fact emergent is part of the practice.

This kind of vigilance resonated when I read a recent article in the Harvard Business Review called Understanding “New Power”, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. It’s worth the read in its entirety but here is one passage that spoke particularly to me.

A much more interesting and complex transformation is just beginning, one driven by a growing tension between two distinct forces: old power and new power.

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

The old way of working becomes currency by default. All the more reason to lean into what is more a current, like water or electricity. And of course the idea of being a channel is right in line with my way of seeing and making.

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Stillness, wherever: In this instance, the sunset from Carmel Beach, California

Pico Iyer is a very known travel writer and observer of the world. His most recent book, The Art of Stillness, is an invitation to his readers to choose the best destination of all—Nowhere. Going nowhere, says Iyer, “just may be the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.”

This may be surprising travel advice from a man who has indulged his oversized Wanderlust for most of his life. But in this slim book Iyer steps away from his adventurous observations of the outward bound life and turns his gaze on his own interior landscape of being a writer.

Writers…are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, it to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.

The battlefield of sitting still is even more complicated by a cultural milieu that increasingly mediates against any stillness in our lives, ever. And yet every maker—writers, visual artists, musicians—knows how essential it is to get there.

Unfortunately, once you do achieve a sitting stillness, that doesn’t mean you’ve arrived.

Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen: there’s nowhere to hide there…A life of stillness can sometimes lead not to art but to doubt or dereliction; anyone who longs to see the light is signing on for many nights alone in the dark.

One of my running themes on this blog has been the parallels between the creative life and the life of contemplation. Iyer turns to that path for clues as well. He spends time in monasteries and retreats. Drawing from anecdotes of several well known contemplatives such as Leonard Cohen, Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson and Matthieu Ricard, Iyer learns by studying their patterns.

One of the first insights is that things are not as they appear. Iyer quotes Thomas Merton: “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.”

Nowhere has its own time zone and climate system, a place where the rules are a bit different. Near the end of the book Iyer shares his own wise advice, words that resonate with my experiences in the studio:

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere—by sitting still or letting my mind relax—that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

Making space for the unbidden: That’s a worthwhile mantra for what studio time is all about.

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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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Nigrassa, one of the pieces included in the show at Chautauqua Institution this summer, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances,” that has been sold and taken up residence elsewhere.

Ann Lauterbach, poet and educator, is the author of The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. As is usually the case, her insights about poetry and poetry writing apply to other forms of expression as well. (I regularly rely on poets to articulate what I find so hard to verbalize.)

I don’t know if this is a technique that works for you, but the right book somehow rises to the top of my stack or falls off the shelf at an opportune moment. Open it up, and there is something that speaks to life at that particular moment. My erudite and book loving niece Rebecca Ricks recommended Night Sky to me several years ago, so I read the collection and left my markings on its pages before putting it on the shelf. This morning I was thinking about the show at Chautauqua that came down this week and about the paintings that have found new homes, and there was Lauterbach’s book sitting there ready to be re-engaged. A few phrases immediately jumped out at me, like the difference between seeing from the periphery rather than the center, and how the whole fragment (what a great term!) can be embraced.

These were the passages that spoke to me this morning which I hope find resonance with you too.

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To write poetry in America is in itself a subversive act, a refutation of, and resistance to, certain assumptions about what constitutes “the public” and its interests.

Poetry protects language from serving any master.

One can see better from the periphery than from the center.

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My fear is that my fragments of knowledge are just bits and pieces with too many unbridgeable gaps between them.

And so, in defense, I have come to celebrate the whole fragment.

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Linear argument, where one thing leads ineluctably to another, is of profound practical and rhetorical value, but necessarily it discourages vicissitude and ephemera, ambivalence and dead ends, ruminations that suggest a different mental economy, one that could affect conclusions beyond the restraint of reasoning logic.

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The crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects, and so to initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection.

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Art serves no practical purpose, but to engage with it fully is to acknowledge the (pleasurable, if often difficult) consequences of choice at the crux of human agency.
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Dolice 1, 12 x 12″ on wood panel

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Nigrassa, 40 x 40″ on canvas

Both paintings are from the upcoming show, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances”, at Chautauqua Institution, June 16 – August 19, 2014

For us, honey is a gift; for the bee, it is labor.
–Jane Hirschfield

The poet Jane Hirschfield is a constant source of wisdom about making in all its many forms, and this line speaks clearly to what every writer/painter/musician/dancer/performer knows intimately. There’s honey to be had, but it comes after hours and hours of work.

In the same essay, The Circular Path, from the collection, A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, Hirschfield includes a few more resonant insights:

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Writing is an act that generates and expands attention. And if I’m lucky, I may write something that helps expand the life and attention of others as well.

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Whatever people find in my poems of radiance or grace comes out of the struggle to turn away from disappearance and toward presence.

The hope—and the quiet sense of surrender—in these words is aligned with my own thoughts as I head out to Chautauqua for the opening of my show this week: On the Surface: Outward Appearances.

I’ll be back to Slow Muse next week.

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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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“Desert Breath,” land art in the Eastern Sahara Desert in Egypt. Two spirals emanate from a circular depression 100 feet in diameter. The installation occupies over a million square feet of desert and can be viewed from the air. Artist Danae Stratou, designer and architect Alexandra Stratou, and architect Stella Constantinides created the project between 1995 and 1997. It has since been left to slowly disintegrate. (Photos: Laughing Squid)

Those who know me well know of my passion for Fanny Howe—her poetry and her prose speak to me deeply. One of my favorite Howe essays, “Bewilderment” (included in her book, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life) is a particular favorite, and one that I go back to again and again.

In this passage she turns to dreams and how they engage with us. Her descriptions are so closely aligned with how art comes into being in my studio. There is a dialogue and a dance happening every time I encounter a surface that is asking to be engaged in the process of becoming something else.

As we all know, a dream hesitates. it doesn’t grasp, it stands back, it jokes, it makes itself scared, it circles, and it fizzles.

A dream often undermines the narratives of power and winning…

A dream breaks into parts and contradicts its own will, even as it travels around and around.

For me, bewilderment is like a dream: one continually returning pause on a gyre and in both my stories and my poems it could be the shape of the spiral that imprints itself in my interior before anything else emerges on paper.

For the spiral-walked there is no plain path, no up and down, no inside or outside. But there are strange returns and recognitions and never a conclusion.

Spiral walking! I love that phrase. Howe then combines the concept of the spiral with the mystic tradition of the maze, another invitation to be in bewilderment:

The construction of high-hedged mazes is a concession to bewilderment, just as Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty rises and sinks under the weight of Utah’s salt water—both site and non-site—a shape that must turn back or drop off—that can climb and wind down—that has noetic as well as poetic attributes, miming infinity in its uncertain end.

The maze and the spiral have aesthetic value since they are constructed for others—places to learn about perplexity and loss of bearing.

And even if it is associated with childhood, madness, stupidity, and failure, even if it shows not only how to get lost but also how it feels not to return, bewilderment has a high status in several mystical traditions.

The definition of bewilder is “to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.” It is a collapse of the referential and an invitation to sustain tetherlessness. Bewilderment “breaks open the lock of dualism (it’s this or that) and peers out into space (not this, not that.)

Mystics get this. I think many artists do too.

[Note: You can view Desert Breath from Google Earth here.]

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Songwriter Bob Russell ( “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, among many others) wrote these lyrics for Billie Holiday back in the 1940s:

The difficult I’ll do right now
The impossible will take a little while.

The second line was the inspiration for the title of one of my favorite books, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, a selection of essays compiled by Paul Rogat Loeb and published in 2004. He draws wisdom on impossible things—or so they may have seemed at the time—from many 20th century greats including Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Diane Ackerman, Seamus Heaney, Václav Havel, Howard Zinn.

In Daniel Barenboim‘s Norton Lecture series (collected in his book, Music Quickens Time), he brings music into this sphere of the impossible:

I firmly believe that it is impossible to speak about music. There have been many definitions of music which have, in fact, merely described a subjective reaction to it. The only really precise and objective definition for me is by Ferruccio Busoni…who said that music is sonorous air. It says everything and nothing at the same time. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw in music an idea of the world. In music, as in life, it is really only possible to speak about our own reactions and perceptions. If I attempt to speak about music, it is because the impossible has always attracted me more than the difficult. If there is some sense behind this, to attempt the impossible is, by definition, an adventure…It has the added advantage that failure is not only tolerated but expected.

My artist friend Gordon Waters (who sadly passed away in 2013) wrote a memoir that he coyly titled, Unless Your Picture Goes Wrong It Will Be No Good. Any writer/composer/artist knows how important the broken parts are as a work evolves.

But the difficult is different than the impossible. Art making is so full of difficult things, and there may be something emergent about just moving into the zone of the impossible as Barenboim suggests. It is a way of welcoming adventure rather than staying tethered to life-draining reparations and adjustments. It is a welcoming of failure rather than the constant vigilance to protect against it.

Sometimes the extreme is the exit out. Or in, depending on your point of view.

[Note: This post is from the Slow Muse archives. It first appeared in 2013.]

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