Jamuna, pure pigment on canvas, by Natvar Bhavsar (Image: Asianart.com)

Political language is a tongue, one that is optimally designed to infiltrate both thinking and feeling at the same time. Sarah Hurwitz, speechwriter for Michelle Obama, is a master at getting words to work at all those levels at the same time. Oratory brilliance takes me straight to awe.

Writing about art is strangely similar. When done well it speaks to our cerebral consciousness as well as our emotions, those often inchoate feelings that reside somewhere in our bodies other than our brains. The best writers about art, like the best orators, know how to hit all those spots.

I wish I had those skills. I am a visualizer with a huge crush on verbal language done well, so I catalog more words than I create. This blog is a compendium of my favorite passages, the ones that have achieved that thinking/feeling connection.

Some artists can do both the visual and the verbal well. Here for example is a description of Natvar Bhavsar, an artist I admire, by the cultural cultural historian Marius Kwint:

To listen to him is to be struck by the poetic authority of his language. One is instantly brought into a world of absolute precision and infinite expanse…His speech is as much an art as his painting. His phrases are as original as the aggregations of color on his canvases, his verbal faculties no doubt honed by the fact that his art pretends to no linguistic sophistication but plays only to the foundations of our sensory-cognitive apparatuses. Bhavsar confesses to a “certain Romantic affliction with words.”

In his interview with Bhavsar, Kwint elicits this lovely passage from Bhavsar:

We have been given a very special place to understand things larger than ourselves, all the time, intuitively sometimes, and sometimes through exertion. Buddha, for example, went through all kinds of processes—hunger, torture, everything—to get knowledge, and finally decided that those were not the paths by which he could be enlightened. So he adopted the path of life, and concluded that wisdom and Enlightenment are not based on staying away from reality but on staying very close to reality and, at the same time, trying to understand it. The depths of knowledge and the depths of perseverance, and character-building—these are essential aspects of any creative process, where you submerge yourself to understand something, and not worry about the historical footnotes.

From the same monograph, Irving Sandler makes this point:

Bhavsar is attracted to pure pigment because of its physicality, and the way in which it makes color, or rather color/pigment, physical. But Bhavsar believes that the materiality can also be transmaterial or spiritual. In the West, matter and spirit are generally viewed as incompatible. But not in India.

As a way of bringing this discussion back to the political from where it began, Sandler ends his essay with this poignant claim:

Bhavsar has dealt with an issue summed up by Geeta Kapur. “The classical civilizations of the Asian region hold out a continuing lure for the transcendental. In the matrix of Asian cultures, the metaphysical is a vexed category on account of the more recent secular convictions; this is precisely a matter for an aesthetic avant-garde to tackle.” In a world wracked by national conflicts, racism, genocide, famine, pollution, ecological devastation and crime, Bhavsar’s painting is an oasis of contemplation in which alienation, desperation, despondency, rage, and other psychic wounds can be calmed, a state of repose necessary to human being.

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A solitary figure walking through an empty landscape. That feels like a good description of what this month has felt like to me.
(My daughter Kellin, walking the beach at Duxbury a few years ago)

Years of solitude had taught him that, in one’s memory, all days tend to be the same, but that there is not a day, not even in jail or in the hospital, which does not bring surprises, which is not a translucent network of minimal surprises.

Jorge Luis Borges


The invisible, although it keeps itself hidden, makes itself felt. I cannot see the people I love as I write this, but I can sense their pull, and I act as I do because of their existence. Taken literally, that is how the cosmos works. An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth’s magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners. The whole realm of the visible is compelled by the invisible. Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion, and held together by what we cannot see.

Kathryn Schulz


What we overlook is that underneath the ground of our beliefs, opinions, and concepts is a boundless sea of uncertainty. The concepts we cling to are like tiny boats tossed about in the middle of the vast ocean. We stand on our beliefs and ideas thinking they’re solid, but in fact, they (and we) are on shifting seas.

Steve Hagen


An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.

Djuna Barnes


The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.

Ursula K. Le Guin


Art’s true power comes from its ability to surprise, to turn down unexpected paths, sometimes despite the protests of the artist creating the work. These moments of revelation, which can be charged with fear and exultation, are the lynchpins of all artistic experience and the source of its value. The only path I have found to these moments of inspiration is the hard work of putting the first mark down, then the next.

Stan Berning


I’m heads down in the studio this month. These quotes expose—and relish—the importance of surprise, the unknown and the power of uncertainty. Helpful reminders all to staying open and humble.

I hope to be more fluent with my own words next month. That’s the idea anyway!

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George Wingate is a life long friend and an artist whose explorations have always been engagingly 360. His work has a staggering range. Most recently he has been mastering the weekend only installation: transforming empty storefronts, exhibit spaces or even the homes of friends.

This past weekend George expanded that pop up skill set to bring the indoor and the outdoor closer together, and he chose to do it on his own turf in Wenham MA. Partnering with the husband/wife ceramic team of Daryl and David Townsley, this latest Wingate installation is a feast, from his wonderfully worn and evocative barn studio to the exquisite gardens that surround his home. For urbanites like me who are garden-denied, this is pretty much pure nirvana. And the husband/wife dynamic was also at play with George since he and his wife Penny Wingate are jointly responsible for the lush world you can see in the photos below.

Note: I have documented some earlier Wingate installations on Slow Muse. Those links are listed at the bottom of this post.

Reception in the breezeway

Helping out with sales, Emma




GW10Mounted on the ceiling, the mysterious hand

Into the rafters






Uppage. Another neologism, thank you George















GW32Two friends joined me, Kerry Cudmore and Nancy Bleyer



George, in joy

For more George:

In Water Opens
Up Stairs In Sight: George Wingate
Another Wingate Moment
Take Me Deep: The Dark Room

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Untitled #5 1994 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 ARTIST ROOMS  Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00177

Untitled #5 1994 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00177

Writing about the Agnes Martin exhibit that began at the Tate, moved to Düsseldorf, now at LACMA and (finally!) coming east to the Guggenheim in October, Hilton Als touches on some of my favorite aspects of Martin’s work.

From The Heroic Art of Agnes Martin, in the New York Review of Books:

On solitude and art making:

“We have been very strenuously conditioned against solitude,” she observes in her wonderful collection of writing. “To be alone is considered to be a grievous and dangerous condition…. I suggest that people who like to be alone, who walk alone will perhaps be serious workers in the art field.” Being an art worker was, she felt, a privilege, and one’s apprenticeship took as long as it took; art was not a race. “To live truly and effectively the idea of achievement must be given up,” she wrote in 1981 in an open letter to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Put unsentimental piety first, turn your back on the world, and get on with it.

On a relationship with nature:

Walking through the show, one can see how ultimately unsuited Martin was to be a hard-core Abstract Expressionist; the movement was too noisy, and what did she have to do with bop, the Beats, that wall of sound and bodies that wanted to shout the squares down in favor of “kicks”? Martin was interested not in discord but in harmony. While Jackson Pollock said he was nature, Martin strove to represent how nature made her feel or should make us feel—humble, free. Nature was to her what it was to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eye” in his transcendentalist masterpiece, “Nature” (1836)—a space unrivaled in its ability to inspire and transform.

Emerson’s idealism—“Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us”—was not unlike Martin’s. Often, in her lovely, empathic writing, she tries to communicate what being an artist must mean if one is going to make real work: becoming a conduit of the beautiful, that which cannot be explained.

On the grid and how to encounter her work:

She used the grid as a forum for belief—a space where the viewer as well as the artist could contemplate the hand making the thing being observed. In her well-considered 1971 appreciation of the artist, Kasha Linville wrote:

Once you are caught in one of her paintings, it is an almost painful effort to pull back from the private experience she triggers to examine the way the picture is made. The desire to simply let yourself flow through it, or let it flow through you, is much stronger…. Her paintings exert themselves differently, depending on their line, their pattern, and the quality of the ground color on the canvas. Some are less lyrical, evincing aggression or tension…. Others suggest spaciousness or vast space, again without using illusionistic devices or the egotistical implication of infinitely extendible surface.

One pauses at the extraordinary line “the egotistical implication of infinitely extendible surface.” Unlike her male predecessors, not to mention contemporaries, Martin didn’t use the grid as a means of describing the infinite—the infinite “I” of being an artist. Instead, her work ends at the canvases’ edge.One begins and then one finishes; the grace is in the doing. Her touch was her personality… “Line is where she speaks most personally,” Linville said. “It is her vocabulary as the grids are her syntax.”

Making mystery “a solid object”:

Morris and Bell’s show is a commendable map that reveals Martin making her way, step by step, her pilgrim-like progress measured against all those flat skies, fields, trees, bodies of water, barely expressed emotions that made up her home. Before she left New York and gave up making work for seven years, Martin made a series of drawings and paintings, starting in 1963, that bled color out of her art…In those works and others she was trying to make mystery a solid object. When she returned to her art in 1973, the title she gave to the graphically strong, stark, black-and-white prints she produced first said it all, certainly with respect to the atmosphere that New Mexico could provide her with, day after day as she worked out there, blissfully alone: On a Clear Day.

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In Water, an exhibit currently on view at the Beyond Benign Gallery in Wilmington Massachusetts

Putting this show together, getting it installed and then celebrating with friends—pure pleasure. Thank you to so many who contributed to this effort: The great staff under Amy Cannon at Beyond Benign, Jerry Beck at the Revolving Museum, John Warner of Warner Babcock, all the artists who participated and especially my co-installer George Wingate, art playmate extraordinaire all these many years. (We shared a space in New York City in 1973. Yeah, it’s been a lifetime.)

Information about the exhibit and the gallery is here. If you are in the area, please stop in. While you won’t have the pleasure of hearing the soundtrack of water-themed music or drink wines with water-related names (very cool attention to detail, Amy!) this exploration into water by 6 different artists will be up through October 25.

A few installation shots of In Water (with work by Deborah Barlow, Kay Canavino, Rachael Eastman, Barbara Gagel, Susan Quateman and George Wingate) along with a few other photos:

Intimate ink drawings by Rachael Eastman on the first gallery wall

George Wingate’s diagonal installation is an indicator, a pointer, a propeller, a marker


We wanted this second gallery to feel “bathyspheric”, as if submerged and surrounded by water

On the left, encaustic monoprints by Barbara Gagel

From the left: A mixed media painting by me, another encaustic monoprint by Barbara Gagel, and silk painting and photograph by Susan Quateman



Two underwater photographs by Kay Canavino

Hand cut and assembled, George Wingate created the In Water frieze along the upper wall



Set up with George Wingate

Special help arrived when Kerry Cudmore showed up

Reception prep

Jerry Beck, Amy Cannon (partial view) and Barbara Gagel

Lesli Gordon along with unexpected guests from Saratoga Springs, Colleen Burke and Doodles

Winner of the prize for the longest journey: Linda Gibbs (along with the Michaels, her husband and her brother) who drove up from Mamaroneck New York to be with Rachael Eastman and me

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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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Remaya 2, mixed media on wood panel, 36 x 36″

A year ago I had a conversation with Jerry Beck, good friend and founder of the well known Revolving Museum (in Jerry’s nomenclature, a “nomadic nonprofit cultural organization”). We shared an interest in exploring the linkages between art and science, and we agreed that New England is a rich environment for that kind of dialogue. A new exhibit, In Water, is the result of that conversation.

We chose a ubiquitous topic since every day we each have a personal encounter with water. And while it is fundamental to life, it also possesses a high capacity to transform–it can flow, freeze, vaporize, dropletize, bubble, flood, evaporate, absorb, eviscerate. Its many variations and forms inspire expression.

This exhibit includes works that are diverse in form and intention, from the abstract to the political and ecological. Many of the artists are good friends of mine, so assembling this show has been particularly satisfying. The artists include Kay Canavino, Rachael Eastman, Barbara Gagel, Susan Quateman, George Wingate and myself.

In Water is the first of a series that will be part of the Revolving Museum’s Art and Science Partnership. Working with the Warner Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry and Beyond Benign, an advocacy organization for green chemistry education, we hope to explore themes that speak to both aesthetic and scientific touch points.

I hope you will have a chance to stop by.

Show details:
June 25 – October 25, 2016
Artist Reception: Saturday, June 25, 2-5PM
Warner Babcock Institute and Beyond Benign
100 Research Drive
Wilmington MA 01887

Beyond Benign Gallery hours:
Thursdays, 1-4pm
By appointment at 978.229.5400

For more information:

In Water exhibit

Warner Babcock Institute

Beyond Benign

The Revolving Museum

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Fresco fragment from Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross, portraying Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in 312. In Arezzo, Italy, Cappella Bacci.

I took hundreds of photographs while I was away, but the one I keep returning to is this fragment. A segment from one of the more damaged frescos by Piero della Francesca in the Cappella Bacci, it speaks to what is hidden, lost, obscured and furtive. Of what lies perpetually just out of our reach.

As my tirelessly patient daughter and her husband, both Renaissance art historians, can attest, Piero is a bit of an obsession for me. I’ll be writing more about him in the weeks ahead once I have reclaimed the rhythm in my daily life here. But this 15th century momento is a powerful touchstone and reminder of what lives outside of the quotidian, of the timelessness that the marks made on a wall over 500 years ago can still evoke.

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Italy last year, in the company of experts (who are now new parents as well)

I am out of range for several weeks. I will be back to musing, both fast and slow, on June 1.

For updates in the interim:


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Robert Irwin’s “Untitled” (1969), at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer for The New York Times, Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Robert Irwin holds a particular place in the California annals of contemporary art, and he holds a particular place for me personally. He figured larger than life during my formative years as an artist coming of age on the west coast. I watched as he worked his way through an intense exploration into painting and as he ended up being more interested in the nature of perception than in objects themselves. By the late 60’s he didn’t even want his work to be photographed: Art should only be accessed through direct experience. You have to see an Irwin to “see” it.

“Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” is currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. It is the first exhibit to focus on his evolution as an artist during that period of intensity “when, in full experimental mode, he was shifting the emphasis of his own art from psychic encounters to physical ones, from precious objects to environments, places of contemplation” (Holland Cotter, in the New York Times.) “Images, he soon realized, were a problem. They implied messages to be deciphered, narratives to be read, and he wanted to get away from all that. He wanted to stay abstract, but also to grow more expansive.”

In 1970, Irwin stopped making objects altogether. He closed his studio and engaged in site-specific installations only, ones that were perception-altering. In an interview recorded at LACMA in 1973 (it runs in a loop at the exhibit), Irwin talks about the new “beyond painting” projects that were compelling him at that point in time, from working with NASA to urban environmental design. Many know him for his iconic work in conceptualizing the Dia:Beacon facility and in developing the extraordinary gardens that encompass the Getty Center.

For example, this passage from Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler, speaks to that search for the essential:

“The big challenge for me,” he recalls, “starting around then, the ‘less is more’ challenge, was simply always to try to maximize the energy, the physicality of the painting, and to minimize the imagery. It could all be looked at essentially as turning the entire question upside down: moving away from the literate, conceptual rationale and really reestablishing the inquiry on the perceptual, tactile level. Nobody quite understood that at the time, because they were still thinking in image terms and in terms of literate connotations. When they talked about a painting, they translated it into subject matter, in a way, but it’s not only about that. It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

While my work takes a very different form and may not appear to be in alignment with Irwin’s aesthetic, I resonate deeply with his point of view and the way he languages his art making. His phrase, “phenomenal presence” is one I come back to again and again. (At the bottom of this post is a list of links to earlier Slow Muse posts that focused on Irwin’s writings and point of view.)

The Hirschhorn show is an extraordinary walk through Irwin’s intensely considered journey, one that brings the viewer closer to how he evolved his intention and his gifts. The show is well curated and memorable. It runs through September 5.

More from Cotter’s review:

In 1970 he did something ultra-discreet [at the Museum of Modern Art]: He changed the dimensions of a small gallery by partly lowering the ceiling with a stretch of white scrim. Other, far grander commissions followed over the next 45 years, for site-specific installations in museums, government buildings, airports and parks. When [curator] Ms. Hankins requested a new piece to conclude this show, which will not travel, he returned to the simplicity of the 1970 model. He left the last large gallery in the Hirshhorn’s circling sequence empty but for one element: a floor-to-ceiling white scrim that stretches the length of one wall and gives the illusion of straightening its curve.

The change is both so subtle and so fundamental that it can take even an observant eye time to see it, the way rules can be hard to recognize until long after they’re broken. We accept as a given that art — “great” art — is permanent, precious, the product of personal power, to which Mr. Irwin says: No. He proposes, instead, that art is mutable and conditional. Its materials are ordinary (fabrics, space, light). Its power lies neither in the hand of the maker nor in the eye of the perceiver, but in the meeting, on springy, shifting, flowering ground, between the two.

My daughter-in-law and granddaughter walking through the scrim room

Slow Muse and Robert Irwin:

Meaning and Presence

Reporting in on the Other Coast

Road Work

Pacific Standard Time: Light and Space

Willing Magic

Staying Curious

Phenomenal Presence: Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin at the MFA

Robert Irwin: Part 2

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