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Dave Hickey
Dave Hickey (Photo: Nasher Museum Of Art)

Most of us have a list of our “personal perennials”—those writers, artists and musicians whose works continue to delight, engage, astound, connect. My loyalty to my list runs deep, and there is nothing you could say to sway me from my devotions. They are my inner circle, my carefully selected cotravelers.

Bad boy and art critic Dave Hickey is on that list. My copies of his books, from Air Guitar to The Invisible Dragon to his latest, Pirates and Farmers, have underlining and comments scribbled on every page, their covers crinkled from repeated reading. Some people I know are tired of his tirades and his over the top condemnation of the monied art world, academia, phonies and bad art passing as good art. I get that.

But here’s the thing: For those of us who approach art making with a larger than life devotion and seriousness that has more in common with spiritual aspirants than with hip urbanites, this is a hard time to be an art maker. Money, glamorous commodification, ego and market manipulation increasingly drive the stratospheric world of gallerizing, auctioning and art fairing. More Wall Street than Rothko’s Chapel, that world’s glitter garners visibility and fascination because it is so excessive.

Nothing that happens in that realm however has anything to do with what many of us spend our days doing. If devotion to your work is what you do, you do it quietly and without fanfare. Hickey’s insouciance serves to clear the air of that ambient toxicity. Reading him actually helps me stay focused and steady in my work.

In this latest collection of essays Hickey writes about the difference between the art of Southern California and New York City, particularly during the Minimalisms (they are different) that emerged in the 1970s. He writes about Las Vegas, art collecting, taste, style and the difficulty in assessing the quality of a work of art. Through it all, he is wild and he is funny.

Here’s Hickey doing one of his Hickey things from the book title’s essay:

All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers. They are very different kinds of creatures, and some pirates even recognize the importance of farmers…Farmers on the other hand, always hate pirates…

Never forget that one of the chief causes of personal unhappiness in the US of A, where farmer culture is all but hegemonic, is the denial of pirate identity, because farmers always know who’s a pirate. Pirates don’t always know what they are.

It is very important to know which you are, says Hickey. “There are many unaware pirates, however, in workplaces around the world, who wonder why they are never invited to the weenie roast. They are pirates, but they just don’t know.”

Argh!

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goldfinc

The New York Times named five novels as the best of 2013. Amazingly, two of them—both written by women—are about art and art making: The Flamethrowers*, by Rachel Kushner, and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I was enchanted by both.

While Kushner’s novel takes place in the art world emerging around Soho in the 70′s and the Red Brigade years in Italy, Tartt places her tale in a post-9/11 world. Her novel begins with a terrorist explosion in the Metropolitan Museum that takes the life of the mother of the book’s lead character, a twelve year old named Theo Decker. He escapes the wreckage with a small painting in his satchel, the tiny 17th century Dutch masterpiece of a bird chained at his foot: The Goldfinch painted by Carel Fabritius**.

From this starting point Tartt unfolds an orphan’s tale that blends the 19th century charm of Charles Dickens and the Bildungsroman genre with very American and contemporary themes: East/West tension (large stretches of the book compare the various worlds of Park Avenue and the Village in New York City with the foreclosed wasteland of suburban Las Vegas), the lost boys archetype, addiction, materialistic obsession, and the arcane international underworld of the Russian mafia. But amid these familiar memes Tartt keeps a thread taut: art has a power, mystery and immortality all its own. And although our lives are often broken and wildly out of whack, any of us can and are touched deeply and personally by great works of art.

From Ron Charlesreview in the Washington Post:

The Victorian tenor of this thoroughly modern novel isn’t reflected only in its extended plot and vast collection of memorable characters. You can also feel that 19th-century spirit in the author’s willingness to take advantage of her enormous canvas to reflect self-consciously on moral and aesthetic concerns that so many contemporary fiction writers are too timid or too sophisticated to address directly. Free will and fate, pragmatic morality and absolute values, an authentic life and a dutiful one — those fusty old terms spring to life in an extended passage of philosophical trompe l’oeil as Theo expounds with the authority of a man who has suffered, who knows why the chained bird sings. Through years of guilt and drug-dulled pain, experience has taught him that loving something sublime can soothe “the writhing loneliness of life.” The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death.

Without sounding preachy or pedantic, Tartt aligns the essential importance of art with our troubled and existential world. As the book comes to a close Theo articulates his hard won understanding of that. This passage is a memorable one:

The bird looks out at us. It’s not idealized or humanized. It’s very much a bird. Watchful. Resigned. There’s no moral or story. There’s no resolution,. There’s only a double abyss: between painter and imprisoned bird; between the record he left of the bird and our experience of it, centuries later…

I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at last my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature.

And this passage, a simple description of where art resides:

I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

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*For more about The Flamethrowers, read this Slow Muse post, This Flashing Present.

**The actual painting hangs in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer. While famous in his own lifetime, he died very young in the famous Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 that destroyed a great deal of the city. Most of his works were also lost in that catastrophe.

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Illustration for the essay, “Talent,” from Amy Leach’s “Things That Are.” (Pen-and-ink drawing by Nate Christopherson, courtesy of Milkweed Editions and the artist)

I have been reading nonstop while my hand heals since there is really nothing I can do in the studio. The body does this part all on its own which, like a stubborn child, will not be swayed by bribes, threats or entreaties. When the wound is healed the wound is healed, and not a day sooner than that. So I am digging deep into my stacks* until I am summoned back to work.

While my current rash of reading has leaned toward art, art making and a search for what is transcendent in the visual arts (which is a set of interests that may not appeal to all of my readers), I did read one book that I do believe will meld more easily with a variety of predilections and categories of interest: Things That Are, by Amy Leach. This is a slim book, but Leach is mesmerizingly gifted at pulling you into every one of her 26 quirky, brilliant and beguiling essays. Part science writing, part poetry, part literary mastery in miniature, this is a genre-defying collection. As Julian Gough put it in his Guardian review, “Leach’s writing is very much of now, when postmodernism is merely the sea we swim in, almost invisible to us. High and low cultural references snuggle up in the same paragraph. The realistic coexists with the mystic. The scientist lies down with the poet.”

Let me tempt you with a few Leachian nuggets:

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Sometimes it avails to be a goat. When the grass withers away in Morocco, sheep will stumble dully along, thinking horizontal thoughts. No grass … no grass. But goats look up, start climbing trees.

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Other lizards hide by crypsis, or blending in, like Neptune keeping secret among the stars until 1846. Some lizards look like leaves and some like tree trunks and some like thorns and some like beetles. The secret to crypsis is placing yourself among things you look like, but in a scene where no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants.

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Another reason to suppose that jellyfish sense light is that they live in light, like tomato frogs and bears and grass. Even grass senses light, although slowly, while light is meaningless for tapeworms. Light sponsors its own comprehension.

There is one more passage from Gough’s review that really struck me. It helped me realize something about this book that is actually quite singular:

Many literary writers are mournful, looking inward and backward; some complain quietly to each other about digitisation, about technology, about change. But the scientists are gleefully looking outward, forward; talking to the world. As the scientists take energy from the colossal expansion of the known universe, the literary writers risk being sucked into a black hole of irrelevance. Leach connects these two worlds; one negative, one positive. That generates the current which invigorates her sentences. She is a scientifically literate, literary writer, gleeful and outward looking.

Gleeful and outward looking indeed. That’s an approach that I want to embed in the way I approach my life and my work. Leach’s book embodies that in a way that feels legitimate and authentic, in a way I hope I can model in my own way.

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*Some of my readers really care about books and will ask me for titles. I’ll make it easier for them and for myself since if I don’t write these titles down here my “ran out of RAM a long time ago” memory may forget how delicious they were. So here is my recent list:

Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millennium, by Thomas McEvilley

The Art of Small Things, by Jon Mack

9.5 Theses on Art and Class, by Ben Davis

Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist, by Robert Wuthnow

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, edited by Sherry Turkle

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, by David Wojnarowicz

The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett

Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, by Alexander Nehamas

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, by Jane Bennett

Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations, by Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruh

Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, by Peter Korn

Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual, by Lynn Gamwell

Paths to the Absolute, by John Golding

(A special thanks to Ted Stebbins who recommended the last two books to me, ones I would never have encountered without his help.)

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Book S
A page from “S”

The concept of an artifact—material, touchable and therefore commodifiable—has been a controversial issue in art circles for a long time. For some practitioners, the highest and purist artistic expression is one that happens without a footprint or “residue.” The absence of a material object d’art speaks to a devotion to the experiential and a commitment to stepping away from the shackles of commodification, from the sullied commerce of buying and selling unique works, from the corruptibility of materiality.

Art without artifacts—as is often the case with installation and performance art forms—has found another permutation in the emergence of the Internet over the last 20 years. In this new arena, art forms take on a disembodied existence that lives outside of time or physicality. These new modes of expression are available 24/7, endlessly repeatable, often free or priced for mass consumption, and accessible anywhere by anyone with a digital device.

For many of us however, artifacts have a power. That power is elementally linked to materiality and the fact that a thing can possess a set of actual coordinates in the space/time continuum. Just as online sex is a something but not the same something as sex with another real human body, the concept-only art expression is not a replacement for an object-based one.

Books and publishing have also been caught up in a version of this essential tension. For some people the digitization of content eliminates their need for that physical object called a book. Others, like me, take more of a both/and stance. Digital delivery works just fine for some content. But there are also circumstances where content delivery cannot be satisfactorialy digitized. Art books, like the catalogue raisonné, are better when delivered by way of an object in the hand. So is content that invites—and deserves—a conversation with the reader in the form of margin notes and commentary.

The latest book object that could never be experienced in digital form is the product of a mind not usually equated with artifact-driven art: J. J. Abrams, the famous (and at times controversial) genius behind Alias, Lost and Fringe among many other television series. Written by Abrams and writer Doug Dorst, S was “born out of an idea of a love story and the notion of celebrating the book as an object,” Abrams said. “In a digital age, it’s a distinctly analog object. It felt romantic to me.”

Of course Abrams never does anything old school, and S is not a traditional romance. Nor is it a normal book. Rendered with extraordinary detail to resemble a well worn library volume of a novel called Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka published in 1949, the bookness of the project takes on a completely different form. The author and the novel are fictional creations, as is the complex and engaging artifact that uses a book format to deliver something much more multi-layered. Marginal notes are scribbled on every page in two distinct handwriting styles. Slipped into the pages throughout are tokens of the extracurricular ephemera from the lives of these two readers—handwritten letters, postcards, old photographs, newspaper clippings, a map scrawled on a coffee shop napkin. The authenticity and attention to detail is breathtaking.

The annotators are one Jen and Eric, two students who are fascinated with Straka and the novel. As the reading progresses we watch them fall sweetly in love. But the joy of this book, amazingly, does not require a linear reading of the multi-threaded narratives. At Thanksgiving this year we had guests from Greece, Italy, Venezuela, Norway and Israel. Everyone, regardless of English language skills, was fascinated with S. This is an experience that is enchanting to everyone. And it comes because you can hold it in your hands.

The universality of appeal reminds me of Sleep No More, the theatrical production by Punchdrunk that was staged in Boston and then New York. In this full immersion production, the audience is pulled into an alternative realm, one that is full of magic and evocation. (The root theme is Macbeth and so the leitmotifs include witchcraft, murder, brooding Scotland castles and madness.) While this production requires the complete conquest of an entire building, every room is painstakingly constructed to create a richly detailed, deliciously visual staging that each member of the audience can interact with at her own pace. As large scale as the theatrical intent of Sleep No More is, the stunning attention to detail is what has stayed with me years later. Meticulous recreations make it easier for the mind to let go of its predetermined sense of the world and ease into saying, this is real.

Abrams has shown his mastery of puzzles, mystery, and creating a believable other reality in TV and cinema. That he turned those energies to a book project of this scope is thrilling to book lovers like me. What a celebration of books, reading, publishing, invention and yes, artifactness.

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The Graces, David Salle, 1991 (Photo: Christie’s)

Journalists are their own category of beings. While I respect the ones who do their art and craft with skill, I’d rather wrestle with a big game hunter. In the words of Adam Kirsch, “Goodness, which we praise so highly in life, is infertile terrain for a writer, whether a novelist or a journalist.”

And certainly Janet Malcolm, well known for her many years at the New Yorker, is one of the best. But as she has said herself in a Paris Review interview, “I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a ‘helping profession.’ If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take.”

Malcolm’s latest compilation, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, is revelatory on many levels. The way in which she “takes” what her subjects don’t know they are letting her have says a lot about her as well as them. She is crafting and weaving while she is delivering up her content. As Ian Frazier suggests in his introduction, “Over and over she has demonstrated that nonfiction…can rise to the highest level of literature.” These essays are more than mere reportage. Much more.

My favorite piece so far in the book—I haven’t yet finished them all—is the title essay about artist David Salle. Written over a number of years during the early 90s when Salle was falling out of favor after a decade of art darlingness, it consists of forty-one of her “failed” attempts to profile Salle and his work. This faceted, “cut and paste” approach is pitch perfect given the subject matter. In the words of reviewer David Starkey: “Because she has looked at the artist and his work through so many different lenses, one comes away from the essay with a fuller view of Salle’s work than could have been found in any mere puff piece.”

I have never been a David Salle fan. In fact I have been more aligned with his vociferous detractors including Robert Hughes and Arthur Danto. But while Malcolm refers to her fragments as “false starts,” memorable passages abound and reveal her subject matter as well as her own point of view:

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Paintings like Salle’s—the unabashed products of, if not vandalism, a sort of cold-eyed consumerism—are entirely free of any “anxiety of influence.” For all their borrowings, they seem unprecedented, like a new drug or a new crime. They are rootless, fatherless and motherless.

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Writers have traditionally come to painters’ ateliers in search of aesthetic succor. To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling. The writer comes to a place where traces of making can actually be seen and smelled and touched expecting to be inspired and enabled, possibly even cured.

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He also once told me of how he often gets lost as he paints: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.”

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Only the most pathologically pure-hearted writers, artists, and performers are indifferent to how their work is received and judged.

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In 1992 and 1993, I would visit him at his studio, and we would talk about his work and life. I did not find what he said about his work interesting. (I have never found anything any artist has said about his work interesting), but when he talked about his life—especially about his life as an unsettling presence in the art world and his chronic feeling of being misunderstood—that was something else. Then his words took on a specificity, vividness, and force that had drained out of them when he talked about art.

***
“Why do you give all those interviews?”

Salle thought for a moment. “It’s a lazy person’s form of writing. It’s like writing without having to write. It’s a form in which one can make something, and I like to make things.”

***
Toward the end of a long series of interviews with the artist David Salle, I received this letter from him:

“After the many hours of trying to step outside of myself in order to talk about who or what I am, I feel that the only thing that really matters in art and in life is to go against the tidal wave of literalism and liter-mindedness—to insist on and live the life of the imagination. A painting has to be the experience, instead of pointing to it. I want to have and to give access to feeling. That is the riskiest and only important way to connect art to the world—to make it alive. Everything else is just current events.”

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Carl Belz, my kind of thinker (Photo: www.berkshirefinearts.com)

How do we currently write current art’s history? How, given its elastic chronology and ever-widening geographic reach, its self-consciously elusive look, the multiple urges and identities and media it comprises? How, in the absence of a canon of artists around whom a history might be structured, its sources and development traced, its context established, its achievements described? How, in the face of its censure on quality distinctions, its scapegoating of formalism, its dismissal of originality and artistic intent? How, in other words, do we write art’s history within the broader context of postmodernism’s prevailing hegemony?

So begins Carl Belz*’s most recent posting on Left Bank about two recently released books—Invented Symbols by Alex Katz, and Bad Boy: My Life On And Off The Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone.

Belz continues in this vein:

Our unwieldy culture and its academic strictures increasingly nudge us to write the history of current art not from the outside in but from the inside out, personally and informally, more often than not via the autobiography and the memoir, genres rooted in direct experience that is unique to the individual writer. In doing so, our voices may be unauthorized by institutional structures, but likewise are they unfettered by those structures and the conventions they embody. In the publications considered here those voices richly inform our understanding not of any classroom theory about art’s making but of its day-to-day studio practice – the actual source material upon which any history of painting during the second half of the 20th Century in New York City must ultimately be based.

Belz’s suggestion that a better (different? more compelling? more authentic?) version of art making would emerge if we were to shift our view from the outside in to the inside out is yet another example of a move towards dismantling the old order. This drift towards the non-canonical is something I champion and applaud. My most recent—and frequently referenced—canon-busting example has been Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-sponsored mega exhibit of Southern California art that was staged at 200 venues in 2011. As a result, the decidedly New York-centric version of American art over the last 50 years is being revised and recast.

More evidence of that new inclusiveness: The two best shows in New York City this summer are James Turrell at the Guggenheim and Ken Price at the Met. Both are California artists, and their sensibilities reflect their origins from a different coast. Peter Schjeldahl‘s review of the Turrell show in the New Yorker captured some of that difference with this statement: “Compare the dreamy sorcery of Turrell’s installations with the blunt self-evidence of fluorescent fixtures in [Dan] Flavin‘s light pieces. At no other time have the sensibilities of America’s Atlantic and Pacific cosmopolitan antipodes stood in sharper contrast.”

Belz’s post doesn’t focus on this issue of California inclusiveness. Instead he insightfully contrasts the highly personal and revelatory memoirs of two well known artists, each of them sharing very distinct views of their career and the art world they inhabited. This thoughtful piece is worth a read, start to finish, for anyone who is compelled and provoked by these issues. After I read a piece by Belz, I immediately want to get to the next one. And the one after that.

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* If you are not familiar with Carl Belz, you can acquaint yourself by reading the posts he has published on Left Bank. Carl was the Director and the Curator of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University from 1974 to 1998. He also taught art history, and legions of his former students still rave about his classes, his charisma and his passion for art. I consistently connect to his sensibilities and am always interested by what he has to say about contemporary art issues. I consider him a valued and intelligent friend.

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Note: This was originally posted on Slow Muse in March 2011. It came across my screen this morning quite unexpectedly and just seemed so timely. Again.


Grand master for a lifetime: Henri Matisse, photographed by Man Ray

The nature of art making over the lifetime has been a recurring theme for me these last few months. Spurred in many ways by the publication of Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, by Nicholas Delbanco (which wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped), my curiosity about what makes an artist able to continue working has only deepened. Answers are few as to why some continue on and others do not, but the question is a potent one.

Here are a few highlights from Delbanco’s book:

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Why should it seem so difficult to substitute endurance for enthusiasm, to temper ambition with artistry;what are, in Cyril Connolly’s fine phrase, the “enemies of promise” that keep us from achieving the best work at the end?

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To know, I mean truly know—as might a basketball player or ballerina—that the best is behind you is to turn to drink or dithering or to an oven or gun. A few modest and decorous authors—think of E. M. Forster and Eudora Welty—withdraw into silence and declare at a certain point in their career, Enough’s enough. But most of us go on and on, unable or unwilling to break a lifetime’s habit of wrangling with language, and happy to be allowed, even encouraged, to do so. Most of us, when asked which book has been our favorite, will answer (hopefully, wishfully, truthfully), “The next.”

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For a group of ceaseless strivers (often miserable, always doubt-hounded as they search) the motto is Cezanne’s: “I seek in painting.” Whereas Picasso announced, “I don’t seek; I find.”

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Of the aging artists, Donald Hall has this to say: When I saw Moore the year he turned eighty, I asked him, in a jocular manner I hope, to tell me the secret of life. Without jocularity he answered that the secret was to devote yourself entirely to one end, to one goal, and to work every day toward this goal, to put all your energy and imagination into the one endeavor. The only necessity was that this goal by unattainable.”

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As Anthony Storr observes, in “Solitude: A Return to Self”:

One of the most interesting features of any creative person’s work is how it changes over time. No highly creative person is ever satisfied with what he has done. Often indeed, after completing a project, he experiences a period of depression from which he is only relieved by embarking on the next piece of work. It seems to me that the capacity to create provides an irreplaceable opportunity for personal development in isolation. Most of us develop and mature primarily through interaction with others. Our passage through life is defined by our roles relative to others; as child, adolescent, spouse, parent, and grandparent. The artist or philosopher is able to mature primarily on his own. His passage through life is defined by the changing nature and increasing maturity of his work, rather than his relationships with others.

The last quote, from Storr’s book, is a rich one. It is also right in keeping with my personal predilection for hermitizing, for being defined more by my work than anything else. And it was provocative enough to get me to read Storr’s book next.

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Solnitessence

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Vascular bundle of a fern rhizome (Image from a fascinating website, Urbagram which addresses a set of interlinked concepts, models, speculations, probings, essays and artefacts based on urban systems.)

I first encountered Rebecca Solnit quite by accident. About ten years ago I was making my usual pilgrimage to the lusciously overstuffed and highly iconic City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco when As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art fell off the shelf and into my hands. I knew nothing about Solnit, and her bio was not the academic-centric one so typical for an art critic. But I read Eve on the plane heading back to Boston and fell under its spell. I have been an unwavering fan of everything Solnit has written ever since.

Solnit is a woman of strong opinions and a fiery intelligence—one friend described a dinner party where she was a guest as harrowingly intense—but what makes her a not quite companionable party guest is also what drives her compelling work. Her interests are far ranging, from politics to art to urbanism to disaster to illness. But in every case her approach to a topic is a rich tapestry of interwovenness, full of unexpected turns and an idiosyncratic take on the facts. She is not a writer that will appeal to linear thinkers who like an arboreal structure to thought. David Ulin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “That’s classic Solnit, to take what sounds like conventional wisdom and reframe it on her own terms…She is what used to be known as a public intellectual, an essayist defined by her ability to connect the dots between seemingly disparate ideas.”

The dot connecting is even more masterful in her most recent book, The Faraway Nearby. This very personal volume begins with the arrival of an oversized box of ripe apricots picked from her mother’s tree. It is from that unexpected starting place that Solnit finds a way to tie those apricots to so many stories and realities, the public as well as the private.

One of the many themes she circles around repeatedly is storytelling itself. “The fruit on my floor made me start to read fairy tales again. They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with.” The assignment to sort, so common in myths and folktales, elicits these wise insights from Solnit:

Such tasks are always the obstacles to becoming, to being set free, or finding love. Carrying out the tasks undoes the curse. Enchantment in these stories is the state of being disguised, displaced in an animal’s body or another’s identity. Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself…

Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into it and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route of becoming…Fairy tales are almost always the stories of the powerless, of the youngest sons, abandoned children…Fairy tales are children’s stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one. In them, power is rarely the right tool for survival anyway. Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindess.

Solnit’s method of sorting through life’s mysteries and seeing connections everywhere—a style I often refer to as the “e) all of the above” approach—is one that I feel completely at home with. She is a good example of a rhizomatic thinker (as articulated by the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) and her skill just keeps getting better.

Her work brings to mind the towering figure of another brilliant and self-styled thinker/writer, Susan Sontag. Solnit wrote a tribute about Sontag in 2005 just after she passed away, and her words about Sontag could apply to her own work as well:

One of the things to be appreciated about Sontag, I think, is that she considered everything a proper occasion for more thinking, more analyzing, more writing…one of the things clear through all her work is that she was not interested merely in writing, but in tending and cultivating a literature-based public sphere in which ideas and principles mattered. It was a romantic idea, but not an unrealistic one—since, after all, she realized it.

Sontag and Solnit are fierce. And we all know that fierceness in a woman is greeted differently in the world than fierceness in a man. Why that is so is an endless discussion and not one I am entering into today. But part of the power of both of these writers is their unswerving devotion to doing it and saying it their own way. And if it were possible to name the primary theme underlying seven years’ worth of posts on Slow Muse, it would be just that.

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ken-price_teaser

The Ken Price show catalog is full of gems. Here are a few:

Price tended to progress in loose series. “It’s the most enjoyable way to work. It’s a lot more satisfying than taking a single piece to completion before you begin the next one…You get a lot more feedback, there are moments of linear progression that makes you think your work is improving.”

As Peter Schjeldahl notes, “It’s as if he crossed a bridge, and burned it, and then buried the river. His use of the ceramic vessel…doesn’t so much take off from the form’s history, as teach that history to mean something novel.”

“When my work is successful, there’s an organic fusion between the surface and the color.”

“I like to work in series or groups of work,” he would say. “I can learn where I’m going faster that way.”

As Price once said to Billy Al Bengston, in Price’s own patois, “I go de out by going de in.” This strategy reflects the accommodation made by Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria to the difficulty of making sculpture in the American West—the problem being that the sky always wins, that the void invariably preempts the volume.

Price is less accessible as an artist because the contemporary art world, remodeled by public money, bad education, ill-gotten gains, and tax breaks for the rich—driven by fashion fantasies, gossip, auction scams, and raw box-office data—has virtually exploded…As a consequence, by tearing down the walls, we have, well, torn down the walls that provided a fragile refuge for civilizing endeavors like Price’s. We have ceded commentary and coverage to the blare of popular media—to the ad pages of theoretical magazines, to public museums, the popular press, the social media, and to universities, which Susan Sontag rather shrewdly observed are little more than pale appendages of popular culture.

Nuance, delicate or less so, is not much in vogue these days.

“I was in pursuit of my own direction and tried to resist hooking up with some movement as a way of getting attention for my work and being seen as cool and cutting edge. But I noticed those movements were coming and going kind of fast.”

Vija Celmins, in conversation with Ken Price: “I remember Brancusi said, ‘Art should be like a well planned crime.’ Which is to say that you don’t discuss it before, and you don’t talk much about it afterwards either.”

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Table (Tisch), by Gerard Richter

No.1: First Works of 362 Artists is a book based on the premise that most artists have a piece they consider their true first painting. Editors Francesca Richer and Matthew Rosensweig attended a lecture by Robert Storr in conjunction with the Gerard Richter retrospective at MOMA in 2002. Richter had chosen to start the exhibition with a painting he did in 1962, Table (image above.) Although Richter had been painting for several years before this one emerged, this is the painting where Richter recognized himself as an artist for the first time.

In the same lecture Storr mentioned that Barnett Newman considered his painting Onement I as his true beginning even though it also showed up several years after he had been working. Richer and Rosensweig were curious enough to investigate this idea further.

They sent out a request to artists that was intentionally open-ended—a personal interpretation of what consititutes a first work. Some artists responded with images from childhood, others cited works that came later but were meaningful. Many had a piece they already considered their first.

The book consists of one image with a written statement by each artist. Some are recognizable names but not all. Reading each artist’s reason for choosing a particular work of art as their “first” is a window into how the vision of visual expression unfolds.

A few samples:

Cecily Brown: “This painting…was among the first paintings I made that weren’t embarrassed to be paintings.”

Jake Berthot: “You could say the Little Flag Painting art talk gibberish was a total misread of Jasper Johns—which it was—but the guts of it came from being really pissed off. It was the first time feeling and seeing became one.”

Sue Williams: “I was looking for a way of working, like a format for my words and drawings and collected images to come together. To make a work of art, I suppose. This was a frustrating time. An artist friend of mine told me “just keep trying things, and a door will open.” I said, “WHAT?” Also around this time I was impressed by a piece by Mike Kelley. it was an installation piece about insect eggs and seemed to go off the deep end. I thought this was very cool; you can do whatever you want. I didn’t know that.”

Rachel Whiteread: “As a postgraduate student at the Slade, I made a small work out of Sellotape. I suppose I was trying to create the skin of the table—an “occasional table” that had been in my family for years. The piece existed for only a few days. It was very fragile.

“Almost two years on, I made what I would consider my first “sculpture,” entitled Closet. It was cast directly from a wardrobe and covered in black felt; I was simply trying to make a childhood memory concrete. It changed my life.”

Tatsuo Miyajima: “My work focuses on the spirit of the user of technology, not on technology itself. People are always important. I am interested in art because it is born from people’s spirit. Art is in your mind. I call it “Art in You.” My work is equipment to look at your own self.”

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