Hunkering Down

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My street in Brookline

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Parking lot at my studio in South Boston

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South Boston icicle fest

Just about everyone I know in New England has been pushed to the edge of the weather tolerance spectrum. We’re already in the red zone and now another blizzard with a foot of snow is heading at us this weekend. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, coping requires managed expectations. Had I chosen to live my life in Antarctica, I know I would feel differently. But we have become used to reasonable winters—the ones where a snowfall every once in a while is beautiful and the disruption is short lived.

Here are three quotes that my existential self—the part of me that is better at detaching and has fewer expectations—is finding comforting in a wry sort of way. Maybe these will speak to you too, even if you are basking on a beach somewhere.

There is no other world. Nor even this one.

Emil Cioran

There is another world, and it is in this one.

Paul Éluard

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, final lines from The Snowman

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The Longing to Work

VincentVanGogh-Self-Portrait-II-1887

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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Still Watching

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Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (Production Photos: A.R.T.)

Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright, Pulitzer prize winner, MacArthur genius fellow, talks about her writing in a manner that resonates deeply with me. She openly speaks about how she lets the spirit inspire her. (A Sanskrit tattoo on her arm reminds her to “follow god.”) “I have a daily practice of writing, yoga and parenting” she proclaimed in a recent interview.

That centeredness spills over into an undeniable sense of self confidence. Parks possesses an artistic sovereignty that enables her to function as her own creative nation state. That is what every imagination-rich artist works for.

From a recent article about Parks by Patrick Healy in New York Times:

But here’s the thing about Ms. Parks: When she thinks she’s right, she’s certain of it. No doubts, no fretting about self-sabotage. While some have knocked her work as self-indulgent or annoying at times, she has an exceptionally vivid sense of herself as a writer who exists on another plane from dramaturgical nit-pickers.

That passage couples nicely with this Parks quote about process from a remarkable interview/conversation with playwright Han Ong in Bomb magazine:

Well, that’s it. It takes a suspension of ego. In the old days, it was, “willingly suspend your disbelief” But now it’s, for me, “get out of the way.” It’s Zen. Suspend your ego long enough to ask the question, who am I, really? I write for me.

These twin concepts—artistic sovereignty and the Zen-like trusting of the process—are extremely well developed in Parks and so admirable. But Parks also commands my respect with her passion for writing stories about and for African Americans. Parks shares her raison d’être quite succinctly in her conversation with Ong: “I write plays because I love black people. I just figured it out fairly recently. Not that I had any other reason before that, but I realized why I want black people on stage—because I love them. And it probably sounds very vague, but it’s true.”

Taking that concept further, John Heilpern quotes Parks in his piece Voices from the Edge:

“Because of a shameful past,” she points out, “there’s an equation from both whites and blacks that automatically goes: Black people are oppressed. There are some wonderful plays about the black struggle—but is that all we get to write about? There’s another equation, I think. And that’s what I’m interested in. How about black people, period? What if you remove the racial tension for a moment? What, then, is the drama and what kind of theater does it make? Maybe really weird theater! But I’m trying to remove the straitjacket.”

Aligning with Parks’ intentions and approach doesn’t necessarily guarantee a connection with her work however. Parks’ recent play, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), is on a run at A.R.T. in Cambridge after its premiere at the Public Theater in New York City last fall. (In his review in the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood heralded these first three plays as Parks’ best work so far.) As much as I wanted to connect deeply with this latest work, I found it difficult.

Taking place in the Civil War, these three one-hour plays offer a fresh deconstruction of Homer’s Odyssey. The protagonist is a slave named Hero (later called Ulysses,) his wife Penny, a dog named “Odd-See,” fellow slave Homer and a small “chorus” of other slaves. Part 1 is the set up for Hero’s decision to go to war on the Confederate side with his “boss-master.” Part 2 takes place during the war, and Part 3 is Hero/Ulysses’s return home after the Emancipation Proclamation.

As a story line, this is rich with possibility. But that sense of possibility was thwarted early on for me. Perhaps it was pacing. Parks often talks about how language is music (“There are aspects of music that I borrow and use in my work: repetition and revision. A big part of jazz is repeat and revise, and repeat and revise,” she told Ong.) The rhythm of the whole evening was colored by a tedious beginning. The cadence of the dialogue felt slow and labored, more irritating than enchanting. There were individual moments when language and character did come together—the fierce monologue by the white Colonel/boss-master about how grateful he is that he is white, Hero’s meditation on his worth (as a slave or as a free man), the oddly out of place but engaging soliloquy by the talking dog Odd-See. But I struggled to find the thread that could hold all these pieces together in a meaningful arc, and it escaped me.

It could just be a quirk in me, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about why these plays missed the mark. It may be that I just happened to see them on one of those nights when that mystical theatrical magic—the alchemy that transforms words, actors, music, sets into another reality—just wasn’t happening. I did speak with three other people who also saw the play, two of them on a different night. They also had issues although their list was different than my own. It wasn’t stitching together as a whole for any of us, but each of us had our own explanations for why that is. I would love to have someone who adored this play tell me why they did.

Parks has announced that there are nine parts to this work, a long term project that ambitiously takes on the 100 years subsequent to the Civil War. The remaining six parts will follow the progeny of these characters as they navigate an America that we all know too well as crippled by a legacy of race discrimination. Parks is so formidable an artist that my dissatisfaction with this first installment does not preclude me from telling people to see the play and to sign up to sail with Parks on this ambitious voyage. I am, in spite of my reservations, very curious to see where she will take this narrative in its larger arc.

Yes, I’m still watching.

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Ken Price at work (Photo: LACMA)

I am especially fond of an essay written some time ago by William Deresiewicz (author of the recently released Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Learning titled The End of Solitude.

Deresiewicz traces the idea of solitude through history, from the early Greek era through Romanticism, Modernism and now Postmodernism. Turns out solitude has gone in and out of fashion. During certain periods, such as the Romantic age, it was highly valued. At other times, like our own, much less so.

But it is his commentary on our era’s particular proclivities that caught my attention this week:

Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves—by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

That quote spoke directly to two novels I have read recently that feature women artists—The The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (and which I have written about previously here) and The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud.

While very different books by two very different writers (neither of whom has been a visual artist BTW), the female protagonist in each is devoted to her art making but has been unsuccessful in her career. Whether that lack of success is fair or unfair is less to the point of either book; more apropos is that both women have been deeply wounded—perhaps one might even say maimed—by their invisibility in a profession that has become as fickle, youth-centered and image conscious as Hollywood, a world where money and connections matter infinitely more than the once sought after qualities of talent, commitment and vision. As a result, both of these artists are full of rage. The anger in both of these books just seethes out of the pages, like oil from an unwieldy container.

For those of us—and that “us” is legion—who operate below the radar screen of auction houses and blue chip pricing, rage that enormous is not unfamiliar. The old line about the fate of the elderly—you can either be crazy or bitter, pick one—applies to aging artists as well. I have never doubted which one I prefer.

While female and minority artists have been discriminated against in every previous era and mostly overlooked, an artist’s rage at feeling invisible is gender and race blind. In my conversations with artist friends from my days in New York City in the 1970s—practicing artists who are now entering their 6th, 7th and 8th decades of life—this is a topic that invariably comes up. Some say they are, like the graciously non-game playing artist Ken Price, reconciled to living their lives out without visibility and accolades. But others struggle more openly with feeling bitter, and they believe those who don’t acknowledge the same are just masters of denial. Underneath all that talk of not caring they say, every artist harbors a deep hunger to be seen and acknowledged.

It is not my place to dissect the artist’s secret self, but I do believe our era’s particular obsession with visibility is in fact a disability for many who need quiet, solitude, focus and isolation to make their art and do their work. In this high connectivity world, it requires an explicit and concerted effort to carve out that private cave time, to keep the channels that are feeding our process free of noise and clutter. The rest is, in my opinion, a secondary concern.

But saying doesn’t make it so. Our world is our world, and its values are ambient. Thankfully there are heroes like Ken Price. I take pleasure in reading this quote from Dave Hickey‘s essay in Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective, Price’s posthumous show catalog:

There are, of course, actual downsides to working small, strange and far away, up in the high country outside of Taos, but Price has kept his own counsel on these. He tells his friends that he thinks of his time on earth in the studio as a gift, so why ask for more?… “Kenny is very pure,” Billy [Al Bengston] says, “and very stubborn, a poet and a philosopher. He doesn’t care about fame or money.”

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Jake Berthot in 1995. Photo: John Berthot

I know several people who knew Jake Berthot personally. I was not so lucky. But a fan of his work I have been for a long time, and I was deeply saddened to read of his death on December 30. He was 75.

Over the years, reading or listening to an interview with Berthot invariably resonates with me. (Several are available online.) He has often spoken about his journey as an artist with a sincerity and candidness that is becoming increasingly rare. In the class of successful and admired artists, there are few who can steer clear of pandering, posing or playing to the art buying crowd.

It is that honesty that allows him to share his vulnerability which is, in my experience, at the very core of art making I care about most. He has been willing to acknowledge that private part of an artist’s life, the one that is happening constantly during the thousands and thousands of hours spent alone in a studio. Berthot always felt like my kinsman, and by describing his own struggles he was able to put a name on my own. He made me feel less alone, less solitary.

And his paintings. They are so thoughtful and yet not cerebral. Berthot blends intelligent painting and powerful feeling. Standing in front of one of his works I am invariably struck by the herculean intention to bring something deeply authentic into form. Like his hero Paul Cezanne, Berthot is incapable of being vapid or flip. He traveled by foot, simply and steadily. It was always about the work, about gaining access—which sometimes required him to claw his way—into the next valence, to move even closer to the essence of that mysterious and compelling process.

Many obituaries and articles about Berthot’s life and work have appeared over the last few weeks. One of my favorites is by Carl Belz, a tribute that appeared on Left Bank Art Blog. I hope this is just the harbinger of more to come about Berthot and his work.

From interviews and articles, here are a few of my favorite Berthotisms, ones chosen because of the commonality I share with his way of working and seeing the world. If you have a few others that speak to you, I hope you will share them too.

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I can’t do anything but paint. That’s a blessing and a curse, but this is all I can do.

***
The paintings I’m doing now, I don’t have any idea about whether they’re good, or bad, or what they are. In many ways that’s a really good place to be. These are the hardest paintings I’ve ever done, and the ones I am least sure about. [He said this in 2012!]

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People want art to come to them and it never will. You have to want to go to art.

***
Once you get it together you have a choice: you can work within your established parameters and make the paintings that people come to expect you to make, or you can follow the investigation you’re involved in and go where that investigation takes you.

***
As a painter you can decide whether you’re going to have a system or a method. Artists like Chuck Close and oy Lichtenstein had a system—they know how to start it and what the end painting will look like.

What I prefer is more like Cezanne. He had a clear method of working but that method was not a closure, but an opening.

***
I work from a place of intuited, felt geometry.

***
A young painter has to make a connection; the connection that most make is to recent history—as an embrace, rejection, or reaction—then they start to work. One day, after painting for a number of years, this painter walks into his studio and discovers that he is involved with his own history. At that point, the connection he makes with the world changes. Up to that point, he’s trying to connect to the world; after it, the world either connects with him or rejects him, and there is very little he can do about that.

***
I reached another point where the idea was closing in on itself, there was too much idea; the paintings started to feel too literal, too much like a figure in space. I wanted something more organic, more felt.

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Second Verse, for instance, was done with a kind of rage; there’s a certain amount of terror in it. That’s when I felt the painting started to dictate what it wanted to be, when the painting became the boss and I became more like a servant to it instead of the other way around.

***
I’ve always wanted something given, something to observe, something I could watch and build on without having to find it—kind of like someone who paints a still life or a figure, but I was never satisfied painting subjects like that. I also wanted a form that would be known; if I say square, you know what a square is, and if I say oval, you know what an oval is—I felt I could build on that, make the painting something you experience rather than just see.

***
I don’t feel very talented. I feel that I have to work really hard for what I get.

***
If you have source, and you believe in that source, then the form will come.

***
As Milton Resnick used to say, you have to become the servant to the painting. When you start you are the boss. At that point it is like a thought process, not about feeling. But at a certain point the painting takes over. There is no real “rationale” for what you do, you just have to do it.

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“Room” by Jake Berthot at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection” in 2006. Photo: Keith Bedford for The New York Times

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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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Passageway in Jerusalem

I just returned from journeying eastward. We spent our first week in Israel for a wedding (mazel tov, Idan and Shelly) and then to Rome for a crash course in all things Roman thanks to our favorite art historians, daughter Kellin and her husband Sean.

Roman ingenuity and technological prowess are staggering when explained by experts, and the ancient Roman sense of beauty and proportion are still larger than life. Being guided through such a highly textured and layered city was even more fun when we were joined by my niece Becca and her friend Taylor.

The theme of this adventure for me seems to be, “The Flow of Time is Pretty Much Incomprehensible.” Is it possible to really grasp what it means that Jerusalem is a city that is 6000 years old? Or can anyone really get the span of time between our lives and the pre-Common Era remnants of the Roman era scattered over the Forum and the rest of the city?

It usually takes a few days for fluid language skills to re-emerge after full immersion experiences like these. Please bear with me. I should be back in a more loquacious state in a day or two.

In the meantime I am sharing a few photos. Many of these images juxtapose the old with the new, capturing moments when I found it just as easy to believe in the simultaneous/parallel universe model (the “multiverse”) as the protracted linear time line we have fashioned for our story of human history. Seems to me that either explanation is reasonable. One thing I do know however: I love soaking in all of it—the old, the new, and everything in between.

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Candles in the Church of the Holy Sepluchre in Jerusalem

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Junk shop in Jaffa

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Pavement in Jerusalem

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Old City, Jerusalem

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Jerusalem

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Bauhaus, Tel Aviv style

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Tom Friedman installation, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

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Bialik Square, Tel Aviv, a blend of Bauhaus, Eclectic and International style architecture

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Engraved floor in Jerusalem

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The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

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Stairs near San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

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Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

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Madonna dei Pellegrini by Caravaggio (in Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Rome)

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Beverly Pepper sculpture at the Ars Pacis in Rome

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Book loving Becca

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Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI museum of contemporary art in Rome

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Inside MAXXI

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MAXXI and beyond

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Roman street

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When Rome was sacked by the imperial army of Charles V in 1527, a cheeky soldier scratched a message on the frescos at Villa Farnesina making fun of the Pope who went into hiding

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Listen up

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Huang Yong Ping’s exhibit, “Baton De Serpent,” at MAXXI

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Roman facade

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Late in the day along the Tiber

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Viewing frescos at Villa Farnesina

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Roman Forum

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Near the Coliseum on the Sunday before Epiphany

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MAXXI lobby

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A Richard Diebenkorn moment: Reflections on the exterior of MAXXI

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My granddaughter Siena tangled up (joyously) in lights

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.

— Garrison Keillor

Compulsory is a good word for this time of year. So is paradoxical. While the holiday percussiveness is pervasive, I still keep looking for some quiet, a bit of solitude, a calming moment.

Prioritize quiet mind. That’s all. Prioritize quiet mind.

Stop the mental noise several times a day. Long periods of up to an hour are excellent. If not long periods then short periods are excellent. But have a plan. Ten minutes of just looking at flowers. Five minutes of cloud watching. Ten minutes of sitting with your eyes closed watching your breath. Six minutes petting the cat or dog. Read something spiritual that truly inspires you to think about your own divinity. During these times never, ever, think about what needs fixing or your “to do” list. If you have trouble keeping the “monkey mind” at bay, keep a mantra handy. Interrupt the monkey mind by repeating a phrase such as “God is love” or “I love cool water”. Give yourself permission to believe that quiet mind is a mind which heals everything.

Other than a general sense of well being, you may not notice a change in your life right away. However, after the gestation period of a few weeks or months you will gain what you have been looking for. A healed mind heals a world.

— Paxton Robey

I am heading east for a few weeks. I will return to Slow Muse in mid-January. Happy New Year everyone.

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Pale Ramon

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One of the phases of the moon from Selenographia, world’s first lunar atlas completed by German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1647 after years of obsessive observations. Hevelius also created history’s first true moon map. Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

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Plate from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise ‘An Original Theory,’ depicting Wright’s trailblazing notion that the universe is composed of multiple galaxies. Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

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NASA’s 1979 geological map of the south polar region of the moon, part of the U.S. Geological Survey. Courtesy of USGS/NASA

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A 1493 woodcut by German physician and cartographer Hartmann Schedel, depicting the seventh day, or Sabbath, when God rested. Courtesy of the Huntington Library

Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, by Michael Benson, may look like just another Abrams coffee table book, one of those volumes that are heavy on pretty and light on content. But this book is no “beautiful blank.” Benson has assembled a stunning compendium of our longings as humans to outpicture, navigate and model the cosmos of our physical world. It is such a profound passion in us, that will to bring sense to what we can, in reality, only partially grasp.

From Maria Popova‘s excellent overview on Brainpickings:

Long before Galileo pioneered the telescope…humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. We have always sought to make visible the invisible forces we long to understand, the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing beckons to us with more intense allure than the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Four millennia of that mesmerism-made-visible is what journalist, photographer, and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson explores with great dedication and discernment in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time—a pictorial catalog of our quest to order the cosmos and grasp our place in it, a sensemaking process defined by what Benson aptly calls our “gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness”…This masterwork of scholarship also attests, ever so gently, ever so powerfully, to the value of the “ungoogleable” — a considerable portion of Benson’s bewitching images comes from the vaults of the world’s great science libraries and archives, bringing to light a wealth of previously unseen treasures.

As an epigraph to his book, Benson includes an appropriately paradoxical and lyrical quote from Italo Calvino. This passage captures the poetic nature of that irresistible but essentially furtive presence, that something that we desperately long to “grok” but cannot. It’s too all too immense, too beyond our puniness.

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.

The collection of images is so varied and enchanting they are museum exhibit worthy just based on their visual power. But underneath all that delight there remains that haunting search so exquisitely captured in the final stanza of Wallace Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West (which is, after all these years, still my favorite poem):

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

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Looking closely at a recent painting

Robert Hass begins his extraordinary collection, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, talking about the photography of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams:

What the two artists have in common, besides a name, is a certain technical authority. The source of that authority is mysterious to me. But it is that thing in their images that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking. I think it’s something to do with the formal imagination. I don’t know whether photographers find it in the world, or when they look through the viewfinder, or when they work in the darkroom, but the effect is a calling together of all the elements of an image so that the photograph feels like it is both prior to the act of seeing and the act of seeing. Attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention comes to life.

There is so much in this paragraph I find compelling. What actually is the “formal imagination”? And what is that distinction between what happens prior to seeing and the very act itself? Every maker, writer, artist straddles the essential tension of attention and how it comes through us, but it is difficult to describe.

That issue of attention correlates with a passage from Philippa Perry‘s book, How To Stay Sane:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to…The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved…If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up. … The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

After reading that quote, a friend added this insight from the Persian poet حافظ Hafiz: “What we speak (or listen to or believe without questioning) becomes the house we live in.”

The “house we live in” is a perpetual construction site. Our thoughts, attention and actions constellate a space that is our artistic/emotional/spiritual/ consciousness habitation. While Hafiz is being metaphorical, the power of the form around the form—the self inside its house—has been particularly visceral for me as we live through the chaos of renovating the back rooms of our IRL home.

Through it all, what matters is how to bring something substantial into existence. I am reminded of literary critic Christopher Ricks‘s litmus test for how to recognize value in art: “That which continues to repay attention.”

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