Ghostly: ‘Untitled’, 1977, is on show in Agnes Martin’s Tate Modern retrospective Photo: Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society

Some would say there has been enough written about Agnes Martin to last us for a while. Her show at the Tate Modern (up through October 11) has produced many reviews, plus two new books about her life and work were released this summer: Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal (and written about here), plus Agnes Martin, by Briony Fer and Tiffany Bell. It was, finally, the Summer of Agnes.

But I’m not tired of thinking about her work, contemplating her story or navigating her complexities. I haven’t finished either book yet—nonfiction ended up at the bottom of my book stack this summer once I fell hopelessly in love with Elena Ferrante‘s four novel series, the Neapolitan Novels*—but read on I will.

Even with all that has been written about her and her work, Martin is elusive and hard to grasp. Princenthal, who began a correspondence with Martin while she was still a college student, addresses her complexity directly:

I first wrote about her when I was in college; at that time, we exchanged letters, and hers to me, a long handwritten note in which she firmly encouraged me to dismiss “intellect” and “ideas” in favor of “true feelings,” was a puzzle that I worked at for years. It wasn’t what I wanted—I was writing an academic paper and had asked for her opinions of various critical responses—but its deep generosity provided a story I’ve told students more than once. The more I’ve come to know about her life and work, the more I’ve come to respect her essential unknowability and to beware of her many inconsistencies.

The more I’ve come to know about her life and work, the more I’ve come to respect her essential unknowability and to beware of her many inconsistencies. There’s graciousness in this statement, giving Agnes the leeway she needs—and deserves—to be squirrelly and hard to nail down. It brings to mind the famous line by D. W. Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”

Princenthal extends that gracious unknowing to Agnes’ work as well:

Her paintings require discriminating attention and a fair amount of time. They are notoriously difficult to reproduce; as with live performance, you have to be there. Like the horizon between the sea and sky, the drawn lines that organize her work are both firm and fluid, and they seem to change with our changing perspective on them; so do the contours of her life.

For some who study Martin’s work, her essential unknowability is frustrating. I am in awe of the space Agnes demanded for herself, the requisite space she needed to do her work on her terms. And when I enter into that inchoate space, she shares the mystery and the wonder. Those are experiences that, for me, exist beyond language and remind me why visual language is so powerful. Princenthal is exceptional in her respect for that alternate zone.

*Ferrante’s books are highly recommended for anyone who has loved Jane Austen and/or the 6 hour, exquisite cinematic epic, Best of Youth.

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One corner in my new show, “The Light Within”, at Brooklyn Workshop Gallery (September 5 – October 11.) The combination of metallic surfaces on the series to the right (“Silma 1-4″) and the chalky intensity of “Kannakam” on the gorgeously textured wall on the left pleases my eye.

How to talk about the visual without short shrifting its power has been a question I have danced in and around for most of my life as an artist. Certainly that theme has played out in these nine years’ worth of posts on Slow Muse. How to successfully language the visual remains an ongoing mystery and challenge. I don’t know if I am any better at verbalizing a useful construct for my work than I was when I began so many years ago. I may just be better at bobbing and weaving.

Having been part of a large community of artists on Facebook for many years now, I have encountered artists who are in fact much better at this than I am. Read Altoon Sultan‘s posts about her own work and the work of others on her blog, Studio and Garden, and you will find a clear, informed but non-authoritarian voice.

I’m more in the mist than Altoon (although she is good at mist as well.) I get engaged and enchanted—perhaps too much so—by what can’t quite be described or what is just beyond my language skill set. But I have come to know that being in that unknown zone feels comfortable to me since that is a state of mind I am in when I am in the studio every day. The direction my work is taking, the way a piece comes to completion—every day is full of 90 degree turns and surprise appearances. The basket is found by my door, day after day, laden with alimentation.

Friend and artist Miriam Louisa Simons reposted a piece about Vija Celmins that provoked me to dig back into the Slow Muse archive for some related material.

Here’s one, featuring the ever engaging Dave Hickey:

Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary Artists, Interview Twelve Contemporary Artists is a simple idea but so valuable. Reading the conversations between artists (who are, in most cases, already good friends) is a bit like listening to really good mechanics talk shop with other really good mechanics—a lot of under the hood chatter, sharing quick tips and an undefended discussion of the practical as well as the intuitive.

A few lines from the introduction, written by the inveterate trickster king Dave Hickey:

“The speakers in these interviews are saddled with the tragi-comic injunction to talk about that which they cannot: their art—to discuss that practice, which, were it explicable, they should not be pursuing, to explain those objects which, had they known what they were making, they almost certainly should not have made. Thus, Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog and the fox is applicable here. “The fox knows many little things,” Berlin explains, “the hedgehog knows one big thing,” and artists, as artists, are almost always hedgehogs. They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation. So what we have here, between these covers, is the conversation of hedgehogs playing at being foxes. We do not get that one big thing, nor could we expect it. But we do get the atmosphere, the filigree of little things, of accident and incident, of nuance and desire, that surrounds the enormous absence that the work of art must, necessarily, fill in our lived experience.”

And this memorable quote, from 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.

Literary variations of this theme also exist. Currently under the spell of the exquisite Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (pen name for someone who wants a life rather than the fishbowl self consciousness of celebritism), I loved encountering this line in James Wood‘s New Yorker article about the books and their mysterious author:

Ferrante holds that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.”

In the end, the painting does stand alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guy Davenport

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

Vladimir Nabokov

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

Rick Bass

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

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

–Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brooklyn Show

Marae 2
Marae 2, 16 x 16″, mixed media on wood panel

I am having a show of recent paintings at Brooklyn Workshop Gallery in Carroll Gardens during September and October.

Curator Martine Bisagni has titled the show, “The Light Within,” choosing works where light appears to be emerging from within the painting rather than sourced externally. Martine curated my last show at BWG in 2010, and I have great appreciation for her careful eye. Also on display—new ceramics by artist and friend Amani Ansari.

Three gallery events are scheduled so I will be in and around Brooklyn a lot in September and October. If none of these times works for you, please contact me so we can find another time to convene. I hope to see you during the show run.

Recent Paintings

With new ceramics by Amani Ansari

September 3 – October 11, 2015

Brooklyn Workshop Gallery
393 Hoyt Street
Brooklyn NY
718 797 9428
(F or G Train to Carroll Street)

Thursday, September 17
Preview: 3-5pm
Opening: 6-10pm

Saturday, September 26
Artist meet and greet: Noon to 5pm

Sunday, October 11
Closing celebration: Noon to 6pm


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Skeepa, from a new series

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which takes me back to Acocella’s review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love this book.

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Mosel, the German valley most associated with Riesling wines (Photo: Friedrich Petersdorff)

I’ve been laboring to write about (mostly) art making and creativity on this blog for almost 10 years. One of the overarching themes has been the search for language that comes in close, authentically, to the experiences I have when I am in the studio.

Artists talking about making art are uneven at best although sometimes a Philip Guston or a Tom Nozkowski hits a sweet spot. So my most reliable source has been the prose of poets. The best soundtracks to narrate my personal creative journey have come from poets like Jane Hirschfield, William Stafford, Fanny Howe, W. S. Piero, Robert Hass, Christian Wiman, Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Donald Hall, among others. Poetry and painting, the parallels are many. And the wordsmithing by poets about poetry is a remarkably useful overlay that maps onto the terrain of the visual arts very well. It’s like a cartographic graft.

But who knew that another exquisitely well matched overlay existed, and in the world of wine of all things?

It isn’t all writing about wine of course. More specifically it is the writing about wine by someone who approaches his topic with respect for what is ineffable, a someone who brings his language as poetically proximate as is possible to that impenetrable core. Call it beauty, joy, oneness. An extraordinary wine is a portal for him much the way an extraordinary work of art is for me.

Terry Theise‘s beautifully written book, Reading Between the Wines, has become my new touchstone. One of his first sentences captures the spirit of his approach and made it clear to me we were on the same wavelength in our respective métiers: “I have an abiding and evanescent concern about wines that show a strange force of gentleness that makes us grope for a language by which it may be described.” And from there the parallels between wine and art just continue to unfold.

Consider the distinction he makes between “noisy” wines and more quiet ones:

Many wines, even good wines, let you taste the noise. But only the very best wines let you taste the silence…silence isn’t merely the absence of noise. It is the presence of eternity. A wine that can offer such a thing to you is a wine that breaks bread with the angels.

He goes on to describe the experience of drinking these wines that allow you to “taste the silence”:

These introverted wines seem to draw some sheer curtain, and suddenly the world falls away. They banish preoccupation. They deliver repose. They embody a calmness, they channel the daydreams. And they do it with no perceptible effort. They combine a serene diffidence with a strangely numinous beauty in a poignant and haunting way. And such wines are full of flavor, often the most searching and complex wines we’ll ever know. But they hold you in their theta-dance, and some crust starts to dissolve in you, and you liquefy to your core, a place hardly anyone ever sees, and the wine seems to know you, like some strange angel…

If it moves you, and if you try to talk about it, you feel like a fool. You don’t have the language you need, and so you fumble, and people think you’ve been hitting the bong pipe. For you it is entirely definite as feeling and spiritual sense, but in language it is nebulous. How do we delineate between wines that enact and wines that reveal?

And that’s just from the preface.

My entire copy of Terry’s book is marked up with exclamation marks and underlines. It particularly touches into an issue I struggle with constantly: making the distinction between art that screams and art that whispers, between art that feels distanced and detached from the artist who made it and work that seems to still have its umbilical connection in tact. We live in an extremely noisy, extroverted culture. Advocating for what doesn’t scream to compete is hard work.

I also resonated with his description of a polarity that exists in the winemaking world:

Consider the schism between two groups of vintners and drinkers: those who feel wine is “made,” and those who feel it is grown. It is a fundamental split between two mutually exclusive approaches to both wine and life. If a grower believes from his everyday experience that flavors are inherent in his land, he will labor to preserve them. This means he does nothing to inhibit, obscure, or change them. He does not write his adorable agenda over his raw material. He respects the material. He is there to release it, to take this nascent being, slap it on the ass, and make it wail.

If, on the other hand, your work as a “winemaker” is all about the vision you have a priori, the wine you wish to “sculpt,” then your raw material is a challenge to surmount, almost an inconvenience. You learn to be expert at systems and procedures. You make wine as if you were piloting a plane, and there’s nothing wrong with being a good pilot. But terroir-driven vintners make wine as if they were riding on the back of a bird.

That’s a much more poetic portrait of a similar distinction I see in the art world than any efforts I have made to delineate how differently art making is being approached these days. As Terry points out, there’s nothing wrong with being a good pilot. But like his terroir-driven friends, I would much rather ride on the back of a bird.

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

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

She continues:

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

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

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

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

Hirschfield again:

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

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

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

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Agamya 2

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

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

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

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

Perfect danger, with grace. That’s it.

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

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