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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.'”

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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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.

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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Sarah Manguso, photographed at home in Los Angeles. Photograph: Barry J. Holmes for the Observer

I read Alice Gregory‘s review of Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, by Sarah Manguso in the New Yorker a few months ago. I knew I would love this slim slip of a book, which I do.

Gregory’s review is so good—as is the one written by Maria Popova on Brainpickings—that I don’t feel the need to spend time explaining the curious nature of this book that is about writing a diary while never including a single line from that compulsively written, 800,000 word document. Manguso’s exploration is a memoir and a meditation, full of wisdom about about many things but most notably about time and how it passes through our lives.

Manguso’s sense of time and of herself shifted deeply when she had a child. “When I am with my son, I feel the bracing speed of the one-way journey that guides human experience.” She continues in this vein: “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing.”

After a lifetime of being fixated—I think it is fair to say obsessed—with writing down everything that was happening to her, she no longer needs the diary. Manguso arrives at this simple but beautiful place:

The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

One step more: Gregory ends her review by moving beyond the strictly personal and looking at how our lives are playing out in a 21st century world of social media, self reporting and ever morphing personal relationships:

One could argue that reading memoirs comes more naturally to us now than ever before. Our critical faculties and emotional voyeurism are primed as they’ve never been. Social media barrage us daily with fragmented first-person accounts of people’s lives. We have become finely tuned instruments of semiotic analysis, capable of decoding at a glance the false enthusiasm of friends, the connotations of geotags, the tangle of opinions that lie embedded in a single turn of phrase. Continuously providing updates on life for others can encourage a person to hone a sense of humor and check a sense of privilege. It can keep friendships alive that might otherwise fall victim to entropy. But what constantly self-reporting your own life does not seem to enable a person to do—at least, not yet—is to communicate to others a private sense of what it feels like to be you. With “Ongoingness,” Manguso has achieved this. In her almost psychedelic musings on time and what it means to preserve one’s own life, she has managed to transcribe an entirely interior world. She has written the memoir we didn’t realize we needed.

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The Longing to Work


I have been house bound more days this winter than any I can remember. For the second day in a row the trains and busses in Boston are not running. With six feet of snow in 30 days and more coming (along with a bitter blast of Arctic cold), traveling the five miles from my home to my studio has become a daily challenge. Walk? Drive? They both are problematic.

How easy it is to take the essentials for granted—a place to work, the needed supplies, sufficient heat. I don’t have the easy portability of my writer friends—I NEED my tools and studio to do my work. My yearning can’t be satiated with just a sketchbook.

During this winter of being sojourned by the fire more days than is normal, I have thought about my longing to work through a different lens. Van Gogh’s life has been the theme of my book reading for several days, both in the form of a new novel, The Season of Migration, by Nellie Hermann, and the much-lauded short biography by artist and writer Julian Bell, A Power Seething.

Van Gogh is one of the artists whose works never grow old for me. All these years I have studied his paintings and drawings, and a million date books, tote bags, fridge magnets and umbrellas cannot kill off the unique relationship he crafted with nature. His work feels embodied, a way of bringing us to that ineffable connection we have all felt with the awesome and sublime sense of our world. Getting that sensation to reside inside a drawing or a painting however is incredibly rare. That was his gift, a deep empathy with the spirit of things, with the world. And it still moves me deeply to see what his hand brought forth during those very few years he was at work.

These two books are a well suited pair. Both authors conjure fresh views into that famous life story—the one that has been so endlessly mythologized—and bring Van Gogh into sharper focus. Neither author attempts to compete with the enormous scope of Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. But both books are gentle in their balanced presentation of his failings and his gifts.

As often as Van Gogh is portrayed as the misunderstood genius, he wasn’t an easy person. As Jonathan Lopez wrote in his review in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Bell’s fundamental vision of Van Gogh’s identity is heavily indebted to the work of Messrs. Naifeh and Smith, whose demystified presentation of the artist did away with the popular notion of Van Gogh as a hypersensitive innocent too pure for this world. To a considerable degree, that image was derived from Irving Stone’s widely read, fictionalized Van Gogh biography, “Lust for Life” (1934), which invented dramatic situations and dialogue loosely based on Van Gogh’s correspondence…Messrs. Naifeh and Smith revealed instead a stubborn, argumentative and often rude individual. In this they drew upon the profoundly authoritative and resoundingly boring academic biography of Van Gogh by the eminent Dutch art historian Jan Hulsker, published in 1985. There is a great deal of truth to the characterization—Van Gogh tested the patience of virtually everyone he ever met—but the underlying poignancy of the artist’s social ineptitude is not really explored sufficiently in any of the existing biographies.

For all his social awkwardness, penchant for self destruction and proclivities to drama, Van Gogh had a longing in him that was profound. During his early struggles to find his way, Van Gogh’s life was a string of failures. It took repeated disappointments and ejections for him to finally see what it was he was truly designed to do.

In one of his over 600 letters to his younger brother and eventual patron Theo (the complete set now available online here), Van Gogh said he felt obliged to express his most authentic moments of insight with drawings and paintings as a form of gratitude for the privilege of being alive. While it took him until the age of 30 to claim the position of artist for himself, both Hermann and Bell respect the complexity and struggle of the journey he had to make to find his rightful place. From Bell’s book: “The painter may be in hell, but painting is still heaven.”

A version of that gauntlet must be run by anyone who has chosen to be an artist, and those of us who have all own a version of this story. Van Gogh’s arduous life and his stunning work still hold their resonance all these years later.

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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.

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.

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.

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.”

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?

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.

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.

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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