Art Making

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matchbook
Somewhere between what is hidden and what is seen: A matchbook found at the bottom of a box of paints from my days on the Lower East Side in the 1970s.

In Jane Hirschfield‘s slim but wisdom-packed book, Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry, she includes a poem written in 1000 CE by the Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu:

It is true,
the wind blows terribly here—
but moonlight
also leaks between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

Shkikibu’s poem reminds its reader that beauty, and also the Buddhist awakening frequently signalled in Japanese poetry by the image of moonlight, will come to a person only if the full range of events and feelings are allowed into his or her life. Real permeability cannot be provisional. It is impossible to know what will enter if the house of the solidified and defended self is breached, and ruin is not a condition any person willingly seeks. Still, those gaps in the roof planks—not the assigned doors, the expected windows—are the opening through which the luminous arrives.

Permeability. It is a favorite both/and. Margins exist everywhere in our world for good reason—be they a roof or our skin—and yet “gaps in the roof” are essential for any creative undertaking, whether it is making a painting or making a life.

To feed the spirit of this paradox even further, here are a few more quotes garnered from previous postings on Slow Muse. Clearly this is an ongoing theme, and one that I never tire of pondering. So many leaky margins exist in our lives, and the nature of permeability continues to compel.

What Kafka had to be so clear and simple about was that nothing is clear and simple. On his death bed he said of a vase of flowers that they were like him: simultaneously alive and dead. All demarcations are shimmeringly blurred. Some powerful sets of opposites absolutely do not, as Heraclitus said, cooperate. They fight. They tip over the balance of every certainty. We can, Kafka said, easily believe any truth and its negative at the same time.

Guy Davenport

I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelopes us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.

Vladimir Nabokov

And then the kicker is this: in passing from the real to the imagined, in following that trail, you learn that both sides have a little of the other in each, that there are elements of the imagined inside your experience of the “real” world – rock, bone, wood, ice – and elements of the real – not the metaphorical, but the actual thing itself – inside stories and tales and dreams.

Rick Bass

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Bulldoggity

angle1
Up close and personal on a painting, seen from an angled view

Bulldog behavior, getting a hold of something and holding on especially if you’re not sure exactly what it is—worrying it, wiggling it, maybe throwing it up in the air and chasing it, not letting it get away but not pinning it down either.

–Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press

Not everyone goes about art making with that spirit of bulldoggedness that Kathan Brown describes. I have several artist friends—whose work I love—who approach their work with a premeditated clarity and exacting precision, very unlike this way of working. And because my proclivity is increasingly towards “e) all of the above” on so many issues having to do with art and art making, I wouldn’t necessarily hold Brown’s words as guidance in art making. It’s just one way of working in a world with millions of options.

But there is no question that the worrying, wiggling, air tossing and chasing is familiar terrain for me. And it isn’t about feeling angst or self doubt. It is more about holding on with tenacity coupled with a relentless playfulness. I rely on both.

Playful bulldoggedness? Perhaps that’s one way to think about the tension in that concept. But there is also the issue of having the good sense to know when to back off. To know how, and when, to stop.

To that point, Brown references the work and process of Julie Mehretu (who has done several print series with her at Crown Point Press):

Julie Mehretu, in a lecture…spoke of “the thing that I’m chasing” rather wistfully, almost as an aside. The next day in the etching studio she said of the print later titled Unclosed, “If I put too much more in it, it will become definitive. I want it to allude, suggest.”

We often walk a boundary that is unseen until the minute we cross over and go too far. “Doubt is humility after a long, long apprenticeship,” Lori Ellison wrote, a remarkable artist who passed away a few weeks ago and left a huge community of us grieving her loss. Lori wrote eloquently and frequently about humility and the need to be in the not knowing. My sense of being bulldoggity is just that: Not being sure, but holding on all the same.

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Skeepa
Skeepa, from a new series

The New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella recently reviewed Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright by Sara Solovitch.

Stagefright. Being a visual artist comes with plenty of baggage, but this isn’t one that is on my list of potential afflictions. Meanwhile this is a disabling condition that affects a surprisingly large number of famous performers including Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbra Streisand and Vladimir Horowitz. Described as “self-poisoning by adrenaline,” a feeling similar to a “snail having its shell ripped off,” stagefright doesn’t happen in my painting studio, working alone, without an audience.

And yet Acocella’s article has resonance for those of us who are not performing artists:

Sometimes, when performers speak of stagefright, one senses that they do not actually wish it gone—that, for them, it is almost a badge of honor, or, at least, proof that they’re serious about their work. As musicians, especially, will tell you, what they are doing up there is not meeting an agreed upon goal but, rather, creating something new. Horowitz insisted that the notes in the score did not tell you what the music was. The music was behind the notes, he said, and the performance was your search for it: “I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back.”

There’s poetry in Horowitz’s description. It also is reminiscent of a comment made at an exhibition of my paintings in Ireland some years ago by a young student. After spending a long time looking closely at my work, he came over to me and said, “I think I know what your work is about. You are painting the backside of everything.” That line—the back side of everything—has remained one of my favorite descriptors.

Creating something new IS daunting. Seen in that light, a performer struggling with making that happen in real time on a stage does share something with the solitary artist, alone in a studio, working to achieve a similar goal. Sometimes that very effort can result in a disabling self-consciousness, relentless struggle and/or a proclivity to self-sabotage. While those Romantic era notions don’t serve the process all that well (my practical-minded opinion), they are still real feelings and obstacles that need navigating.

Which takes me back to Acocella’s review:

The idea is that the performing artist is a sort of Prometheus: in order to bring us the fire, he has to agree to have his liver eaten. “A divine ailment, a sacred madness”: that’s what Charles Rosen called stagefright. He said that its physical manifestations were the same as those described in medieval medical treatises as the symptoms of the disease of being in love. Many performing artists would be embarrassed to go that far. “People tell you that you have to be nervous to do well,” Emmanuel Ax says. “I don’t believe that.”

I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back, Horowitz said. As different as painting is from performing a Schubert concerto, I know that feeling that Horowitz describes. Perhaps you too have been in that place where you feel yourself move in and then through a form, a gesture, an intention. And that experience resonates with Horowitz’s image, like looking down or back into what that thing is. I love when those moments happen. It is transcendence, whether in a studio or on a stage.

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WIP1
Detail from a work in process: Learning how to know my own terrain

Terry Theise‘s book, Reading Between the Wines (first introduced here), offers so many redolent parallels between winemaking and painting. And during a season when the land is in full expression, the analogies are particularly timely and apt.

Consider this response from one of Theise’s vintners/partners when asked what she likes best about her work:

For me, the best part is getting to know the vineyards, because you can’t rush it. You really have to spend time in them to see what makes then tick.

That’s what painting feels like: You can’t rush it. You have to give it time, and you have to let every piece find its own voicing. Artist as caretaker.

Another of Theise’s wine grower friends, Helmut Dönnhoff, has a similar story:

He’d obtained a parcel in a great site called Dellchen, and after about four years the quality of the wine took a big stride forward. I noticed it and remarked upon it, and he agreed; the new vintage had jumped ahead of all its predecessors. I asked, “Is it because the vines are older?”

“No—although they are,” he replied. “I’m not sure there is a reason, except that I’m getting to know the vineyard better. We’re more at home with each other.” I can just see my concrete-minded, linear-intellect friends groaning and rolling their eyes. What’s all this mysticism? What, indeed. Dönnhoff is about the most matter-of-fact guy I know, but he talks about this aspect of a vintner’s life quite explicitly: “I hope my wines convey a story,” he says. “Otherwise they’re just things, bottles of wine, good wine certainly, but I want them to tell the story of a man in his landscape.”

That’s such a simple line: Tell the story of a man(woman) in his(her) landscape. But I know what that means for me.

I often divide artwork into those that have a life force and those that feel cold and lifeless. (Brice Marden has referred to large paintings that “stiffen up, go dead, feel mechanical.”) It’s that quality of “story”—which for non-narrative artists and musicians might be more accurately described as the power of presence—that makes for art that is memorable and meaningful. (Bill Irwin refers to this quality as phenomenal presence.)

Theise continues this line of thinking in terms most of us can understand:

Anyone who has ever tended a garden experiences the same thing. You get to know your garden, and it responds to you. How can it do otherwise? It might respond with vigorous growth if you’re a skillful grower, or it might respond with weeds and blight if you’re careless or inattentive—but respond it must. Is it such a stretch to imagine that it responds in some way to the love you show it? If you like being in your garden, if you observe it with interest, curiosity, appreciation, should we really insist that it cannot respond? Why would we rather believe that?

And to take the art making/wine growing analogy for one more lap, here’s a great rule of thumb for all art makers:

Willi Bründlmayer, one of the great Austrian vintners, said, “I try to get each vintage into a spirit close to This is my first vintage or This is my last vintage, in order to draw as much joy and affection for the grapes as possible. Chase away all routine and find the singularity of each vintage and of each grape.”

I love this book.

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Kana'an 3
Kana’an 3, from a new series

Jane Hirschfield, poet and Buddhist, is my favorite guide to the overlapping territory shared by spirituality and creativity. In her books Nine Gates and most recently, Ten Windows, she moves back and forth between the artistic process and the interior life of the soul. In Ten Windows she writes, “The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.”

She continues:

Within a summoned and hybrid awareness, the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees. Catherine of Siena wrote, in the fourteenth century, “All the way to heaven is heaven”; Marcel Duchamp, in the third year of the First World War, submitted a porcelain urinal to an art show, titling it Fountain. Both say: to form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.

But how aware are any of us are of that process in our own creative efforts? Reading what artists have to say about their work makes it clear that intentions are often very different from results. Art historians still argue about how aware Mark Rothko was of the profound spiritual transcendence his paintings elicited in viewers. Agnes Martin doggedly insisted that her work did not contain references to the landscape and nature.

As we all know, saying doesn’t make it so. Freud and others have made the case that everything is autobiographical, that everything we do is a portrait of us. What attracts us and draws us in is all part of that unique matrix that is us, a unique blend of personality, history, identity, experiences.

But there is nothing fixed about that process. It’s a current we enter into, one that allows us to constantly expand what we see and what we understand.

Hirschfield again:

What a writer or painter undertakes in each work of art is an experiment whose hoped-for outcome is an expanded knowing. Each gesture, each failed or less-than-failed attempt to create an experience by language or color and paper, is imagination reaching outward to sieve the world. To make a genuine work of art, or even to take in such a work fully, is to tie a further knot of that fisherman’s intricate fly.

Sieve the world. Hirschfield’s metaphor suggests that understanding can increase, bringing the idea of accretion into the daily practice of making. Perhaps that is a more dynamic way to think about studio work than my old standby, the Zen koan phrase that describes what you do to reach enlightenment as well as after you achieve it: “chop wood, carry water.”

Or maybe this is best greeted with my favorite response to just about everything: Can we have both/and?

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agamya-2
Agamya 2

“May your imagination know
The grace of perfect danger.”

Those are lines are from the poem, For the Artist at the Start of Day, by John O’Donohue, the warmhearted Irish poet and former priest who died in his sleep at just 52 seven years ago.

Writing this poem for anyone who spends their day making, O’Donohue begins with the essential invocation to slip clear of the “sticky web of the personal.” It comes with “its hurt and its hauntings,” he warns. Once past the perilous distractions of the quotidian, the possibility then opens up to find the “rhythm not yet heard,” that “calls space to/A different shape.”

But my favorite line in the poem is these five words: The grace of perfect danger. It is a phrase that is so concise but encapsulates an enormous idea. I have had that sense many times in my studio, where precariousness lives inside a canopy of exquisite, inviolate sureness. That essential tension was a feeling I knew in my body but could not describe in words. Until now.

Perfect danger, with grace. That’s it.

____
Thank you Linda Crawford to sending the O’Donohue poem my way.

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Lajiva
“Lajiva”, from a new series

In his essay, The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, Jonathan Lethem writes, “It’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange.”

That line is a reference to the 18th century poet Novalis whose early romanticism was captured in his admonition for art making: “Making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” (For an unforgettable glimpse into the life and times of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg—AKA Novalis—read the exquisite novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower.*)

William Gordon, cofounder of a popular problem solving methodology synectics, views this exploration of the familiar and the strange as a metaphorical process. His central principle: “Trust things that are alien, and alienate things that are trusted.”

Good effort in the studio calls up both ends of that spectrum, daily. On the one hand there is the need to actively dismantle old habits and familiar ways of working. Too much rote work and the magic gets thin. But welcoming in what’s strange and unexpected is how we maintain the creative Gulf Stream inside.

It may be that each of us leans one way or the other: Some great efforts tend towards the familiar made strange, while other undertakings turn that around.

I’m more inclined to the latter. I am drawn to the unseen, to those inchoate notions that I hope to bring in closer. I think that is what the poet W. S. Piero was referring to here: “Certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation.” Moreover, he says, today’s artist “sees only the freshness of the first day of the world—he does not yet see its ‘face.'”

________
*
Regarding The Blue Flower:

It is a quite astonishing book, a masterpiece, as a number of British critics have already said…It is hard to know where to begin to praise the book. First off, I can think of no better introduction to the Romantic era: its intellectual exaltation, its political ferment, its brilliant amateur self-scrutiny, its propensity for intense friendships and sibling relationships, its uncertain morals, its rumors and reputations and meetings, its innocence and its refusal of limits. Also, ”The Blue Flower” is a wholly convincing account of that very difficult subject, genius…

And, of course, like the masterpiece it is, “The Blue Flower” ranges far beyond itself. It is an interrogation of life, love, purpose, experience and horizons, which has found its perfect vehicle in a few years from the pitifully short life of a German youth about to become a great poet—one living in a period of intellectual and political upheaval, when even the prevailing medical orthodoxy “held that to be alive was not a natural state.”

Michael Hofmann
New York Times

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agnes_martin_1954_1
Agnes Martin (Photo: Mildred Tolbert)

From the newly released Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal:

Martin’s mature paintings (she destroyed most of her early work) are incontrovertibly right, in the sense that they convince us that not a single preliminary decision or incident of execution could have been changed without damage. Composed of the simplest elements, including ruled, penciled lines and a narrow range of forms—grids, stripes, and, very occasionally, circles, triangles and squares—and painted in a limited palette on canvases that are always square, they reveal an esthetic sense that is, as her friend Ann Wilson said, the visual equivalent of perfect pitch.

What a thing to say about a body of work: pitch perfect. Having just gone through the arduous task of culling through my archives and throwing out a lot of old work, that perfect pitchness looms as a specter. We all want to achieve that with every piece, but it is a rare state.

I am not a perfectionist (which would be a crippling quality for anyone who learns by doing), but my decision to keep a work or to give it a toss came down to which pieces could hold that essential tension, a version of Wilson’s perfect pitch. There has to be something in the intrinsic energetics of the work that holds the parts together in a precarious, “this almost doesn’t work but it does” delicate balancing. In its own way it is a kind of immutability: that a particular painting is just what it must be, and wouldn’t work in any other form.

Noguchi said, “For artists there is no such thing as progress. It’s only a deepening.” That’s definitely the direction.

And apropos to that, another passage from Princenthal’s wonderful book:

To be abstracted is to be at some distance from the material world. It is a form of local exaltation but also, sometimes, even disturbance…Agnes Martin, one of the most esteemed abstract painters of the second half of the twentieth century, expressed—and, at times, dwelled in—the most extreme forms of abstraction: pure, silencing, enveloping, and upending.

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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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tuttle-richard
Richard Tuttle (Photo: PBS)

The most reliable speaker about art and art making from where I sit: Richard Tuttle. In this interview with Ross Simonini in Art in America, he touches on many of the themes that are all over my writings on Slow Muse. Here are a few that are particularly important to me right now.

***
The object is important for looking. The eye, seeing the totality, is physical and spiritual—a lifelong development. I have a collection of glass objects. The eye is invited to go through, if it wants, or to stop. These are superb training devices. Objects can be made with embodied hands or disembodied hands. I like making things with disembodied hands.

Our culture is anti-hand; it thinks it’s better to work with your head. Everybody aspires to go to college, so they don’t have to work with their hands, yet hands are a source of intelligence. You divorce yourself from a part of your intelligence without them. To work with disembodied hands is perfect; you have all the intelligence, but don’t submit to the sentimentality that says handmade is more valuable. The “maker’s movement” is not sentimental.

***
Jacob Boehme, an early-Renaissance German mystic, wrote The Signature of All Things. It’s nice to pass that book on; it’s always been a kind of secret, generation after generation. His chief idea is that mystical presence exists as a signature. Every time you see something, part of what you see is the signature, which is the beauty of man.

***
One can distinguish between scale and size. Usually, we are happy with the issue of size—if it’s small, it’s small; if it’s big, it’s big. But scale is a question of the individual. Each person, everyone ever born, has a unique scale. They have it like a unique fingerprint. You can decide to find your scale. The day you find it is a day you remember. It changes your life. Your parents may determine your size, but you determine your scale. Your creative dimension allows you to create yourself in a more significant way than how you are created by your parents. Life offers each of us that possibility. It’s sad how few take it up.

***
Human experience is a constant struggle between the real and the unreal. Every moment you are faced with trying to work out an acceptable relationship between the two. Art is almost by definition a working out of real and unreal; that is its value. The world is a place where size issues need to be worked out, and this involves all kinds of quantitative issues, which can be expressed emotionally or physically, in relationships with other people, etc. But the relations between the real and the unreal are negotiated internally, where issues of scale come in.

***
Art is unreal; color is real. That’s why painting is so fascinating. Color is real when you paint, but paint is not real. Paint is one of the great inventions. It can transport you from this world to the next. It’s a major thing.

***
The first day of kindergarten, my drawing was rejected by the teacher. Now I’ve studied a bit of child development, and I see that my drawing was at genius level, which the teacher wasn’t able to grasp. Not only did I not receive praise for a drawing that was important to me, but I was marginalized, punished. I have never trusted a teacher the rest of my life. That’s good. One of my lines is, “If Aristotle can’t be your teacher, you have to teach yourself.” When I speak at art schools, I say, “I’m not here to teach how to be an artist but to say, as best I can, what it’s like to be an artist.” They are eager to hear.

More about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

Richard Tuttle in Maine

The Tuttle Bump

Martian Muse and Richard Tuttle

Scale it Up, Scale it Down

Tuttle Therapy

Textilia

Go Broad, or Go Deep

Richard Tuttle at Sperone Westwater

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