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My granddaughter Siena drawing in the Rothko room at the newly opened East Building of the National Gallery, Washington DC (Photo: Mona Wilcox)

We have to help each other. That may sound trite, but it has come to mean a lot more to me over the last dark weeks. When my spirits flagged, I have been helped by friends and strangers with the steady flow of digitally-delivered wisdom.

One post by writer Chuck Wendig (his blog is Terrible Minds) arrived at just at the right moment:

What I mean is this: if you’re a person who Makes Art, then that’s who you are, and there’s nothing precious or small about that…Art is vital, and as such, the artist is vital for making it. Part of the goal of the chaos going on is to put a rope around your wrists, your throat, and your heart and try to stop you from making cool stuff. It’s designed to hamstring you creatively and critically. You can’t let that happen. You gotta carry on. You gotta do the work. YOU GOTTA MAKE THE THINGS.

Wendig went on to list ten things for every maker to keep in mind. These are simple statements, but they are solid. (For more details on each, go to the post, How to Create Art and Make Cool Stuff in a Time of Trouble.)

1. IT’S OKAY IF YOUR OUTPUT SLOWS

2. IT’S NOT OKAY TO STOP ENTIRELY

3. THE TOOLS OF ART ARE YOUR WEAPONS

4. ART CAN ALSO BE YOUR ESCAPE

5. SHUT IT ALL OFF FOR A WHILE

6. CONSUME ART GREEDILY IN GREAT, HEAVING GULPS

7. REMEMBER YOUR AUDIENCE

8. PRACTICE SELF-CARE

9. MAKE A CHANGE

10. YOU MATTER, THIS MATTERS, YOU CAN DO IT

Here’s one more shout out. My friend, poet Fanny Howe, is interviewed in the latest issue of The Paris Review. She discusses her new collection of essays, The Needle’s Eye, and she shares her worthy and wise Fannyisms.

When asked about “the value of poetry in such a brutal world,” Fanny is ready with her response:

You’d have to ask that about all the arts. They lift everyone up. If you ask what good is music you’d say it’s an absurd question. Poetry is innate. You can’t not have poetry if you want to have a whole human being. I heard a Brazilian man at a party say, I hate going to poetry readings but my brain loves hearing it.

A student asks a poignant question: “What do you do if you have no belief?” Fanny’s answer is right in line with what I have come to know:

There are always the arts and they are just as good as reading theology with belief. I feel that the person making the art and the person seeing the art are engaged in a transcendent experience.

So here’s to being whole human beings, to participating in transcendent experiences, to sharing our wisdom with each other. Onward my friends.

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From Doris Salcedo’s Disremembered series. These sculptures are made with raw silk threads interspersed with more than 12,000 tiny, blackened needles. “Handwoven thread by thread and needle by needle, each delicately beautiful but menacing garment embodies a painstaking gesture of mourning.”

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(Detail)

I’m not the only one stymied. Many of us are struggling with we how to manage the interior and the exterior: Defending the sovereignty of creativity (and its nursery-like need for quiet) while navigating a toxic political landscape from which no citizen of the earth should step away. This battle has become a difficult daily exercise for me. I care about both domains, but they are not amicable bedfellows.

Some artists can combine these concerns in their work. Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo‘s exhibit at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, The Materiality of Mourning, is a powerful statement about the victims of political violence and war. Her work is a muscular critique of oppression by way of works that possess an extraordinary delicacy and vulnerability.

But many of us work in a non-representational manner that, by design, lives outside a prescribed narrative or response. The political and the personal don’t cohabit for us as they can in Salcedo’s work.

Poet Charles Simic‘s latest collections of essays, The Life of Images, offers some help in managing this conundrum. Born in Belgrade in what was then Yugoslavia, he grew up in a world at war. “Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others. I’m still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life.” Simic has deep credentials as a poet and a survivor of political violence.

In one of the essays in the book, “In Praise of Invective,” he addresses the essential tension between the body politic and the interior domain:

At the end of a murderous century, let’s curse the enemies of the individual.

Every modern ideologue and thought policeman continues to say that the private is political, that there is no such thing as an autonomous self, and if there is, for the sake of common good it is not desirable to have one…Orthodoxy, groupthink, virtue by decree are the ideals of every religion and every utopian model of society…Ideologies from nationalism to racism are not really about ideas; they’re revivalists’ tents offering a chance to the righteous to enjoy their sense of superiority. “We will find eternal happiness and harmony by sacrificing the individual,” every congregation of the faithful continues to rhapsodize.

He goes on to bring his fierce defense of the individual into the sphere of art making:

Historical experience has taught me to be wary of any manifestation of collectivism…Young poets and painters do associate and influence each other and partake of the same zeitgeist, but despite these obvious truths, what literature worth anything is written by a group? Has any genuine artist ever thought of himself or herself exclusively as a part of a movement? Is anyone seriously a postmodernist, whatever that is?

I don’t find systems congenial. My aesthetic says that the poet is true because he or she cannot be labeled. It is the irreducible uniqueness of each life that is worth honoring and defending.

It is easy to take an artist’s deferment from political action. That’s not the answer, and Simic’s life is a model that informs my own. Like him, I don’t find systems “congenial.” But being a witness and taking action against oppression are not in violation of my devotion to the inchoate inner life that is my work. How this plays out is a work in progress, like so much else in life.

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Benedictions

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Sally Mann (Photo: Liz Liguori)

Finding fully immersive distractions to defend against the relentlessly ugly political news has become a daily ritual. Like so many others, I go out each day in search of sustenance in a landscape that has been ravaged by the locusts of lies, hatred and distrust. Protecting the inner landscape and keeping it moist has become an epic task during this season of my greatest struggle with EAD (see below.)

Books, good ones, work better than just about anything.

Thank you to Sally Mann for her completely captivating memoir, Hold Still. My copy is margin marked as I encounter her artistic insights and understandings. She is a masterful photographer, writer and observer.

For example here’s some of her wisdom about that inevitable process every maker knows about: You have one lucky break—a great painting or photograph or poem emerges out of nowhere. That success brings on a “cocky confidence,” but the next attempts all fail. On cue, the voices of doubt and despair appear and suggest you just give up. They tell you that you have made all the good works you can and that you have nothing more to say.

Mann shares her experience:

That voice is easy to believe…it leaves me with only two choices: I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures. It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

So you soldier on, with just enough good outcomes to keep you going. Soon new work appears, and with it comes the disempowering of the older work. So the struggle continues.

Others looking in from the outside don’t understand how this works and how this feels.

How can they understand the paralyzing, dry-well fear I live with from one good picture to the impossible next? Who can know the agony of tamped-down hope between the shutter’s release and the image in the developer? Or the reckless joy when I realize that, at last, I have a good one; eagerly, my ebbing confidence throws off the winding-sheet and resumes business at the old headquarters, a wondrous resurrection.

But of course, it is also a fleeting one. It lasts about as long as the exquisite apex of a wave and, just as the wave takes the sand castle, it sucks my confidence out with it as it recedes. In its wake, it leaves the freshly exposed reminder that, however good that last image was, the next picture must be better. Each good new picture always holds despair within it, for it raises the ante for the ones that follow…

I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

So here’s to those who slog through to get to those good new pictures, paintings, plays, poems, music. And here’s to the slogging we also have ahead of us in repairing a political landscape drained of compassion, empathy and collaboration. Taking some wisdom from Mann, it isn’t heroic but a plodding, obdurate effort that hopefully brings about a benediction.

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*EAD: Election Addiction Disorder. Thank you to my friend, psychiatrist Harvey Roy Greenberg, for sharing his wickedly funny, DSM-ready description of the epidemic that overtook so many of us these last few months.

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Family diary of Florentine merchant Pepo d’Antonio di Lando degli Albizzi from the 14th century (Photo: The Newberry Library)

Memoirs have been around for a long time, but their occurrence increased significantly around 1990. Interest in that literary category has continued, growing 400 percent between 2004 and 2008 alone, which has led many to call our era the Age of Memoir. As way of explanation for that success, Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project, said, “It is simply so much easier and so much more acceptable to be one. Then there is the fact that it feels good. Why? That old truth about an examined life. It settles the mind. It makes us sure of things. Nothing quite like it.”

Three of my favorite reads right now are memoirs. Two come from a scientific point of view, written by scientists who approach their research with a personal passion. In reading about their deep connection with their work, I see so many similarities with the way artists connect with their creative explorations and meanderings.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren, is utterly engaging. Her invitation steps you in close to life. Her book has changed the way I view trees and the complexity of the ecosystem. The crossovers with art are frequent.

For example, this description of her lab rings familiar:

My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all of the things that I am getting done. My uncalled parents, unpaid credit cards, unwashed dished, and unshaved legs pale in comparison to the noble breakthrough under pursuit. My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am…

My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe…There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t….My lab is a refuge and an asylum. It is my retreat from the professional battlefield; it is the place where I coolly examine my wounds and repair my armor. And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.

Lab or studio, scientist or artist, Jahren’s description captures how a space can hold what is so essential when the passionate core of a person is being tapped.

That close parallel is also evident in her one line description of science:

Science is an institution so singularly convinced of its own value that it cannot bear to throw anything away.

Janna Levin is the author of the memoir, How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space. The book began with letters Levin wrote to her mother exploring and explaining this primal question at the core of her research: Is the universe infinite or is it just really big? A cosmologist by training, she is a masterful translator of complex, esoteric notions of space and time into comprehensible explanations. Her voice is poetic as well as clarifying:

No infinity has ever been observed in nature. Nor is infinity tolerated in a scientific theory—except we keep assuming the universe itself is infinite…

The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space, and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.

The third in this stack is a book many of my artist friends have been raving about since it appeared last year: Hold Still, by Sally Mann. I read the reviews and heard the praises, but I was resistant. I didn’t think a photographer’s memoir sounded all that compelling, and I also wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting the controversy of Mann’s 1990 exhibit that featured images of her naked children. That controversy still dogs her and her work, and I had assumed this would be a rehashing of those issues.

Too many preconceptions and prejudices! What I didn’t know is that Sally Mann is a gifted writer as well as an accomplished photographer. She studied creative writing before she even began taking pictures, and her verbal skills are commanding.

Speaking of memory, for example:

Whatever my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.

I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through. Elegance and logic aside, though, in researching and writing this book, I knew that a tarted-up form of reminiscence wouldn’t do, no matter how aesthetically adroit or merciful. I needed the truth, or, as a friend once said, “something close to it.” That something would be memory’s truth, which is to scientific, objective truth as a pearl is to a piece of sand. But it was all I had.

What a great passage. And there are so many more.

The epigraph that begins Mann’s book parallels the passage above but it also speaks to the genre as a whole:

The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye
See as honestly as they know how, but they lie.

–W. H. Auden

Truth or lies, a memoir done right is irresistible.

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Some of my tiny rectangles. (And yes, there are others)

Now this is a headline perfectly designed to be click bait for the likes of me:

On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books

But I’m glad I took the bite since Summer Brennan‘s essay was perfect for me: thoughtful, humorous and yes, reassuring.

The fact is that in spite of digital drift, there are lots of us who have a book problem. Some more than others, I grant you, but we are a subgroup, a self-designated tribe, and Brennan is a good spokesperson for our cause.

While many young urbanists around the world have been spellbound by the home decluttering advice of supra-minimalist Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and promulgator of the KonMari Method), the system falls short when it comes to dividing up the books you keep and the books you let go. “Paring down one’s wardrobe is one thing, but what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose?” is Brennan’s reasonable question.

Brennan describes her own version of the KonMari cleanse with her library, and her conclusions are much more in line with mine than canonical Kondo:

“A book can wait a thousand years unread until the right reader comes along,” said the critic George Steiner, and that’s true. The good ones are incantations, summoning spells. They are a spark, a balm, a letter from home. They contain demons, gods in a box. They are tiny rectangles with the whole universe packed in. We read books that describe magical portals when really it is the books themselves that are the rabbit hole, the wardrobe, the doorway between worlds. Books, like people, are bigger on the inside…

It’s not true that when you first receive a book is the only right time to read it. Books can stay with you like a talisman on a quest, taken out of your cloak, unwrapped and understood only at your darkest hour: A light to you when all other lights go out.

Brennan’s essay is a loving paean to books, and she differentiates them from other possessions that may clutter our lives and weigh us down. But she also touches into a concern I have had with the hidden side of all this supremacist minimalism that has become so chic:

It’s a useful exercise to clear the cobwebs from one’s bookshelves once in a while, but don’t let anyone talk you into getting rid of your books if you don’t want to, read or unread. Ask yourself whether or not each book sparks joy, and ignore the minimalist proselytizing if it chafes you. After all, the romance of minimalism relies on invisible abundance. The elegantly empty apartment speaks not to genteel poverty, but to the kind of hoarded wealth that makes anything and everything replaceable and available at the click of a mouse. Things and the freedom from things, and then things again if you desire. If you miss a book after getting rid of it, Kondo consoles, you can always buy it again. Dispose and replace, repeat and repeat. Ah, what fleeting luxury.

That’s a great phrase to describe my discomfort with this current version of minimalism—invisible abundance. It speaks to on demand consumerism, with every object just a mouse click away. Thanks, but I’d rather have the stack of “tiny rectangles with the whole universe packed in” than elegantly empty.

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Ocean, by Vija Celmins, 2003 (Photo: C4 Gallery)

Dave Hickey has written about art by cantankerously taking down the academic art establishment, languaging his outrage in a spectrum that ranges from snarky to lyrical, oscillating in tone between a Walt Whitman-like effulgence to just one more Western cowboy dopey dude. He’s not my favorite critic (that spot will always be held by Carl Belz), but I agree with him more often than not. What’s more, I always read what he writes. And given his refusal to engage in the mumbo-jumbo terminology of Art World Mandarin, he reaches a larger audience than most art writers.

His latest book is 25 Women: Essays on their Art. For the most part these short pieces were previously published, commissioned by museums and galleries, so the tone is one of appreciation and advocacy rather than critique. I don’t know every artist included here, but the book is full of those Hickey moments that no one else can deliver.

“Most of my favorite people are women,” he proclaims in the introduction, which might surprise some of his detractors who think of him as just more more white guy art critic. But two deceased women appear larger than life as his reasons for writing this book: the curator Marcia Tucker (“my first rabbi in the art world”), and his own mother Helen Hickey, an academic and an artist with whom he had a very difficult relationship.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Hickey wrote the book “because I couldn’t find one book of collected essays out there about women artists. There’s a lot of books about menopause, and a lot about how you get a gallery, but nothing seriously addressing the work women make.” May this be the first of many.

Two of my favorite essays in the collection are, understandably, artists whose works have influenced my own: Joan Mitchell and Vija Celmins. Hickey captures essential qualities in Mitchell’s work with epigrammatic clarity: “She could make any mark but she never fell in love with one, just with the speed of it.” On Celmins: “Celmin’s work for all its coolness is always haunted by an atmosphere of loss.” Hickey pairs Mitchell with words from Catullus (“I hate and love. Perhaps you’re asking why I do that?/I don’t know but I feel it happening and I am racked.”) And for Celmins, he turns to heavyweights Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: “History is always written from a sedentary point of view, even when the topic is nomads. What is lacking is a Nomadology, the opposite of a history.” These pairings felt pitch perfect.

I resonated with Chloe Wyma‘s conclusion to her review in the New York Times:

Hickey is neither art criticism’s reactionary philosopher king nor its populist Robin Hood, but a sensualist with an acquired taste for art that is resistant to interpretation and unapologetically elitist, a term he halfheartedly redeems as a positive value. He’s a colorful essayist and a perceptive critic. His popularity points to a real problem: Many people feel alienated by contemporary art and the obscure, pleasureless language that encrusts it. Those who don’t cringe at the mention of identity politics, who maintain hope for art as a space for beauty and justice, pleasure and politics, would do well to borrow Hickey’s tools to dismantle his house.

Ain’t it the truth: Many people feel alienated by contemporary art and the obscure, pleasureless language that encrusts it. I’m grateful to Hickey for offering up something else.

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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. (Robert 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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“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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Himnae
Recently completed: Himnae, 42 x 84″

We all have a favorite go to distraction we turn to when things aren’t flowing (or don’t seem to be, which is a common deception.) Books, especially really great ones, are my Balm of Gilead.

And right now, for whatever reason, I have a huge stack of new and “must read” books.* It is like someone brought a truck load of mangoes and emptied them in my front yard, all of them perfectly formed, fragrant and ripe.

Managing excess has never been my strong suit.

As deep and delicious as my book stack is right now, reading in that full immersion manner comes at a cost. Too much of it, even when it is so satisfying and insightful, precludes other things from happening that are important for creative practice. I’m a painter, not a writer. While books will always be an essential part of my creative life, they are not my métier. My work is turning ideas, impressions, hunches and evocations into a visual language.

I found some needed grounding from the poet Jane Hirschfield. In her new book (but of course!), Ten Windows, she articulated the work I need to do:

The mind does not remain rooted in any one statement; it, too, moves ceaselessly from one state to the next. One of the ways it does this is by musing—no accident, that word used to describe the ways in which thought’s more fluid transformations occur. “To muse” implies entering a condition of idleness, outside the responsibilities of the fully adult: a playfulness marks the self-amusing, musing mind. It lifts a thing, turns it over, licks it, sees if it moves; explores in a way that leaves behind both simple preconception and the directionality of strict purpose. Here, too, etymology reveals. “Muse” derives from the Latin mussare, meaning first “to carry in silence,” then “to brood over in silence and uncertainty,” and then only finally “to murmur or mutter, to speak in an undertone.” Musing, it seems, is a thing that happens best in the circumstances of quiet. Undogmatic and tactful before the object of its attention, musing does not impose, but bears witness. It quietly considers, and then, when it finally speaks, does so with the voice, respectful of other presences, that we use in a library, church, or museum—the voice used, that is, when we feel we are in the company of something more important than ourselves. The mind that muses is modest and un-insistent, permeable to what lies beyond comprehension, amenable to some sense of proportion and the comic. Arrogance reserves itself for the more self-involved.

To lift a thing, to turn it over, to take a lick. To sit in quiet, in modest un-insistency. That’s my job: engaging with the self-amusing, musing mind.

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*
For those of you who are, like me, always on the look out for that next great read, here’s my current list:

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal (and another book about Martin written by Briony Fer is coming out in a few weeks)

Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel, by Annie Cohen-Solal

Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview (Thank you Kitty Bancroft for flagging this Getty Publication from last year)

The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st Century Art World, by Roger White

The Artful Universe Expanded, by John Barrow

Ten Windows, by Jane Hirschfield (her earlier volume, Nine Gates, has been quoted from repeatedly here on Slow Muse)

On Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín

No Other Gods, poems by Todd Hearon (and so honored to have one of my paintings on the cover)

My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, just the first of what could be a double digit volume set of this unexpectedly hypnotic account of an ordinary life (thank you book lover and kinswoman Rebecca Ricks for encouraging me to jump in now)

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, by Lynne Tillman

Open City by Teju Cole (thank you Tim Rice)

Euphoria, by Lily King (recommended by the reliable book scouting team of Michael and Mary Pat Robertson)

And my favorite indulgence: Games of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. After getting completely seduced by the HBO series, I had to research how the storytelling could be so expertly crafted. Amazingly, Martin’s writing is really compelling. Who knew?

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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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