Art Making

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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.

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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.'”

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*
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 (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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Ken Price at work (Photo: LACMA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jake Berthot in 1995. Photo: John Berthot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
I work from a place of intuited, felt geometry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Engraving depicting Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, circa 1650. Photograph: Kean Collection/Getty Images. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was an English aristocrat, poet, essayist, playwright and scientist. At a time when most women writers were publishing anonymously, Cavendish published under her own name. She wrote about gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy. Her book, “The Blazing World,” is an utopian romance and one of the earliest examples of science fiction.

It’s a topic that has been discussed endlessly: The historical absence of women artists (as well as writers, musicians, philosophers and playwrights). In 1971 Linda Nochlin published her seminal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The conversation continues.

Siri Hustvedt‘s recent novel, The Blazing World, steps into that space with a fresh take on a theme that just doesn’t go away, and should not. The novel tells the story of Harriet Burden, an embittered middle-aged female artist whose experience of being dismissed and unseen becomes so unbearable that she stages three exhibits where she does the work and a man takes the credit.

Burden has the financial resources and art world connections to pull off a ruse of this scope since her recently deceased husband was a wealthy gallerist and collector. While Burden’s plan is to expose the hypocrisy and bias of the art world—Hustvedt has some exceptionally bitter passages to describe the banality of evil in that world that will make anyone familiar with that demi-monde smile in recognition—her plan backfires badly (as such schemes are inclined to do.)

The novel is constructed as a postmortem scholarly artefact consisting of various texts including Burden’s diaries, critical assessments of her work, interviews with friends and eyewitnesses. Assembled several years after Burden’s death, her work is finally being seen and applauded by the very world that dismissed her during her life. What emerges in the course of the novel is the portrait of a brilliant and creative powerhouse whose career and reputation were thwarted by the art world’s sexism and prejudices.

From Fernanda Eberstadt‘s review in the New York Times:

Whereas the homely, middle-aged Harriet had been dropped by galleries because her work was deemed “high-flown, sentimental and embarrassing,” not to mention painfully earnest, no sooner is her art signed by a 24-year-old “hunk” than it wins sold-out solo shows and critical raves. More damning still, even once Burden is outed as the true author, reviewers and gallery owners refuse to admit they’ve been had. As one journalist puts it, “A 50-ish woman who’s been hanging around the art world all her life can’t really be called a prodigy, can she?” Like so many inconvenient women before her, Burden is labeled a hysterical fantasist…

Despite her XXL personality and her formidable intellect, Burden, like many of the heroines in Hustvedt’s fiction, has spent her life fighting to win the approval of cool, remote men, subordinating her own ambitions to play perfect daughter, “wife and helpmeet.” Burden’s “burden,” we come to realize, is not simply that she is a woman but that she has chosen to marry a rich, much older art dealer. It’s no surprise if the artists she entertains in a Park Avenue apartment boasting a Paul Klee are more interested in whether her husband is going to buy their work than in asking after hers. Only when her husband, the aptly named Felix Lord, dies and the 60-something Burden has fled the “incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule composed of persons who buy and sell aesthetic objets” in Manhattan in favor of a grittier life in Brooklyn’s Red Hook does she feel emboldened to restart her own career, this time under assorted male personas.

Harriet Burden has her self destructive tendencies, so this is not a simple case of discrimination. Too tall and physically imposing, she does not possess the marketable physical presence and image that gallerists are looking to promote. She is also too smart for most of them, a quality that goes down differently from a woman than it does from a man. In Hustvedt’s hands, Burden’s brilliance is a way to play out many of the intellectual themes that Hustvedt touches on in her other books—the philosophical writings of Edmund Husserl, perception science, psychoanalysis, gender studies, the work of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (whose work is referenced in the book’s title.) Hustvedt’s writings tend to include a heady component, which I find enriching.

Hustvedt’s descriptions of Burden’s work and process are highly conceptual. She does not have an ear (or eye?) for the aesthetic concerns that most artists struggle through. As as result, that one aspect of the book feels slightly flat and vaguely inauthentic. But Hustvedt speaks masterfully to the peculiarities of the art world and its point of view. Here are a few passages that were particularly salient.

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From Burden’s diary:

I suspected that if I had come in another package my work might have been embraced or, at least, approached with greater seriousness. I didn’t believe that there had been a plot against me. Much of prejudice is unconscious. What appears on the surface is an unidentified aversion, which is then justified in some rational way. Perhaps being ignored is worse—that look of boredom in the yes of the other person, that assurance that nothing from me could be of any possible interest.

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From art world denizen Oswald Case:

She quoted Freud, big mistake—the colossal charlatan—and novelists and artist and scientists no one’s ever heard of. She dripped with earnestness. If there’s one thing that doesn’t fly in the art world, it’s an excess of sincerity. They like their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.

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From Burden’s daughter, discussing her gallerist father:

In order to sell art, you had to “create desire,” and “desire,” he said, “cannot be satisfied because then it’s no longer desire.” The thing that is truly wanted must always be missing. “Art dealers have to be magicians of hunger.”

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From Burden’s childhood friend, psychiatrist Rachel Briefman:

Without the aura of greatness, without the imprimatur of high culture, hipness, or celebrity, what remained? What was taste? Had there ever been a work of art that wasn’t laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener, however learned and refined?

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From Burden’s lover, Bruno Keinfeld:

After a while, the injustice of it all, the sick, sad misery of being ignored, cracked her heart in two and demented her with anger. I wanted her to fight on, but she decided to walk through the back door and send someone else around the front.

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From Rachel Breifman:

How do preposterous, even impossible ideas take hold of whole populations? The art world was Harry’s laboratory—her microcosm of human interaction—in which buzz and rumor literally alter the appearances of paintings and sculptures. But no one can prove that one work of art is truly superior to another or that the art market runs mostly on such blinkered notions. As Harry pointed out to me repeatedly, there is not even agreement on a definition of art.

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From Burden’s diary, on the 17th century intellectual (and of course misunderstood) Margaret Cavendish:

How to live? A life in the world or a world in the head? To be seen and recognized outside, or to hide and think inside? Actor or hermit? Which is it? She wanted both—to be inside and outside, to ponder and to leap.

That last question is one that every person as well as every artist must ask. This book is an extraordinary exploration into the complexities of that choice.

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