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Shadows on my studio wall

When artist Robert Knafo wrote to request a studio interview with Robert Morris, this was the response he received back. Knafo describes this as the best No he ever received. “I love how he calmly shoots the art documentary cliches, holsters his gun, and walks away,” Knafo wrote. “Thank you Robert for making me think again about what I’m doing.”

I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made half a century ago. Minimalism does not need to hear from me. I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made yesterday. Contemporary art is making enough noise without me. I do not want to be filmed in my studio pretending to be working. I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art—either mine or others past or present–which are labored and disguised performances. I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists or art historians about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, future artists. A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of speaking. It is possible that I was led into art making because talking and being in the presence of another person were not requirements. I do not want to be asked my reasons for not having worked in just one style, or reasons for any of the art that got made (the reason being that there are no reasons in art). I do not want to answer questions about why I used plywood, felt, steam, dirt, grease, lead, wax, money, trees, photographs, electroencephalograms, hot and cold, lawyers, explosions, nudity, sound, language, or drew with my eyes closed. I do not want to tell anecdotes about my past, or stories about the people I have been close to. I refuse to speak of my dead. The people to whom I owe so much either knew it or never will because it is too late now. I do not want to document my turning points, high points, low points, good points, bad points, lucky breaks, bad breaks, breaking points, dead ends, breakthroughs or breakdowns. I do not want to talk about my methods, processes, near misses, flukes, mistakes, disappointments, setbacks, disasters, obsessions, lucky accidents, unlucky accidents, scars, insecurities, disabilities, phobias, fixations, or insomnias over posters I should never have made. I do not want my portrait taken. Everybody uses everybody else for their own purposes, and I am happy to be just material for somebody else so long as I can exercise my right to remain silent, immobile, possibly armed, and at a distance of several miles.

Some find this to be an unduly aggressive response. Others have pointed out that it speaks to the luxury of being an artist who is so famous he can do whatever he wants. All true. But the appeal for me is something deeper.

My fundamental experience has been that much of what makes art so compelling and important cannot be languaged or articulated. And shouldn’t. That isn’t a notion that is necessarily in fashion right now. As John Seed pointed out in his piece, I Don’t Deconstruct, this unwillingness may be the result of my coming of age when spontaneity and engaging with the ineffable were in vogue. Those art school values have been replaced with a deconstructionist/postmodern/intellectual approach to art making, all of it very language dependent.

From Seed’s article:

Being able to “deconstruct” requires speaking and understanding a certain type of language, and subscribing to certain intellectual theories. People who are comfortable deconstructing converse in a language I call “artspeak.” Artspeak is—for contemporary artists, curators and critics—what Latin was for Medieval priests: an esoteric language that separates and elevates.

Some art lends itself to talk, talk, talk. And that verbally enhanced visuality can be stimulating. But Morris’ list of things he will not do marks off a territory where engagements with visuality are free to be unexpected, compelling and mysterious. Much of the “retinal flutter” (Marcel Duchamp‘s term, originally coined as a pejorative but my favorite phrase to describe those transcendent moments) will continue to exist outside a languaged explanation. That flutter is ambient in its natural state, always a bit furtive and endlessly undefined.

(Thank you Mira Schor for sharing this memorable Morris-to-Knafo response.)

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Detail from one of my recent painting series, “Angaris”

I recently found two statements about painting by Australian artist Helen Johnson that were very resonant for me. While Johnson’s work has identifiable content, her approach and attitudes are aligned with my work as a non representationalist.

First, her description of painting from a roundtable about painting in Frieze Magazine:

Painting is a space for the critical deployment of ambiguity, wit, failure and unknowing. Being a painter today doesn’t mean seeing painting as some kind of anachronistic refuge, or thinking that the modernist project of the medium can be rehabilitated, or even continue to be flogged. I am interested in the complexities, loadings and problems of painting as devices for producing meaning today, informed by a new range of conditions. I am not interested in using painting to defend itself, make statements or draw conclusions, but to open spaces for reflective thought, where a multiplicity of positions can be recognized, particularly as a means of resisting the imposition of a fixed narrative.

This passage is from Johnson’s artist statement which is so much better than most efforts in that category of writing about art that is often so tired and trite. I really like her directness and her awareness of contemporary contexts:

Painting serves as the primary ground of my practice, though the approaches I take seek an understanding of painting as a loaded medium operating on new terms in a post-medium condition…Painting is an interesting vehicle for me because it is loaded, neurotic, problematised, a market force, scattered, essentialised and recomplexified, loathed, able to operate simultaneously within and beyond itself, able to be beautiful and horrible at the same time. My approach to painting divagates from a grounding in figuration in search of a space of pluralism and openness, where the privilege of the subject becomes slippery. A gesture, alive in one painting, might be deadened through mechanised replication in the next…Construct and intuition ask questions of one another. The space of painting is for me a space where seemingly incontrovertible things are constantly being reconsidered, put into new relations with other things, where slippage is always present. In this regard it is a useful space for thought.

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Boli (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Bolis are abstract figures that are from the Bamana culture. The basic form, a bit like a simplified cow, is made from mud, eggs, chewed kola nuts, sacrificial blood, urine, honey, beer, vegetable fiber, and cow dung.

The role of the boli is to regulate energy, whatever is moving from the universe into this world. In Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book of essays, Wonderful Investigations, he sees the significance of the boli beyond its singular cultural context:

It is an object that keeps in balance a force, a spiritual energy, which unbalanced, could damage the world. Its likeness to a cow belongs to this world, this earth; its unlikeness to the cow belongs to the other world, the universe. It shares in both, and the oddity of its form is a result of the accuracy with which it performs its work. The boli is a form that attends to its own formlessness. It shows the body at the point of pivot between two kinds of existence. It shows the cost of belonging to two worlds simultaneously while being able to fully exist in neither. It is the object as threshold, a door which is open only by being closed. It is a symbol. It’s life is a symbolic life and brings us who believe in its power to our own symbolic nature.

Beachy-Quick is a poet, and he draws a provocative comparison between the boli and a poem (which, for me, is a reasonable stand in for many different types of works of art):

The poem on the page is no principality. It does not make a distinct place in the world, not does it make a distinct place of the world. It is not a site to travel to, not a place of destination. Rather, the poem denies location because it acts—as the boli figure acts—as a nexus between worlds, taking part in both worlds but belonging to neither, a threshold in which one must learn to uncomfortably dwell.

Given this view of things, it is not the reading a poem for understanding that is difficult, says Beachy-Quick. The harder task is to learn to read so that you can enter the environment that the poem opens up. “To think of poetry as an environment, as a space of initiation, is to learn to read so as to lose a sense of meaning, to become bereft of what it is we thought we knew, to lose direction, to become bewildered.”

We enter into a work of art to threaten the security of the knowledge we possess beforehand. We enter to be asked “a question we will not ask ourselves otherwise, a question that begins at the point of our certainty.”

These are such apt descriptions of what happens when we engage with a finished work of art as well as what we hope can happen in the making itself. Stepping beyond our certainty is what’s necessary for admission into that mysterious non-place between worlds.

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Dave Hickey
Dave Hickey (Photo: Nasher Museum Of Art)

Most of us have a list of our “personal perennials”—those writers, artists and musicians whose works continue to delight, engage, astound, connect. My loyalty to my list runs deep, and there is nothing you could say to sway me from my devotions. They are my inner circle, my carefully selected cotravelers.

Bad boy and art critic Dave Hickey is on that list. My copies of his books, from Air Guitar to The Invisible Dragon to his latest, Pirates and Farmers, have underlining and comments scribbled on every page, their covers crinkled from repeated reading. Some people I know are tired of his tirades and his over the top condemnation of the monied art world, academia, phonies and bad art passing as good art. I get that.

But here’s the thing: For those of us who approach art making with a larger than life devotion and seriousness that has more in common with spiritual aspirants than with hip urbanites, this is a hard time to be an art maker. Money, glamorous commodification, ego and market manipulation increasingly drive the stratospheric world of gallerizing, auctioning and art fairing. More Wall Street than Rothko’s Chapel, that world’s glitter garners visibility and fascination because it is so excessive.

Nothing that happens in that realm however has anything to do with what many of us spend our days doing. If devotion to your work is what you do, you do it quietly and without fanfare. Hickey’s insouciance serves to clear the air of that ambient toxicity. Reading him actually helps me stay focused and steady in my work.

In this latest collection of essays Hickey writes about the difference between the art of Southern California and New York City, particularly during the Minimalisms (they are different) that emerged in the 1970s. He writes about Las Vegas, art collecting, taste, style and the difficulty in assessing the quality of a work of art. Through it all, he is wild and he is funny.

Here’s Hickey doing one of his Hickey things from the book title’s essay:

All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers. They are very different kinds of creatures, and some pirates even recognize the importance of farmers…Farmers on the other hand, always hate pirates…

Never forget that one of the chief causes of personal unhappiness in the US of A, where farmer culture is all but hegemonic, is the denial of pirate identity, because farmers always know who’s a pirate. Pirates don’t always know what they are.

It is very important to know which you are, says Hickey. “There are many unaware pirates, however, in workplaces around the world, who wonder why they are never invited to the weenie roast. They are pirates, but they just don’t know.”

Argh!

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Blade, 6 x 7″, egg tempera on calfskin parchment by Altoon Sultan

Wonder, to preserve itself, withdraws. It withdraws from the mind, from the willing mind, which would make of mystery a category.

I remember being told a story about an old culture that believed the center of the forest was holy and could not be entered into. Even in the heat of the hunt, should the chased beast enter into the sacred center, the hunter would stop and not pursue. I think often about that line—which is not a line in any definite sense, is no certain marking, but rather is itself somehow without definition, a hazy line, a faulty boundary—that marks the periphery. One side of the line is the daily world where we who have appetites must fill our mouths, we who have thoughts must fill our minds. The other side is within the world and beyond, where appetite isn’t to be sated, where desire is not to be fulfilled, and where thoughts refuse to lead to knowledge. I like the moment of failure that finds us on that line, abandoned of intent, caught in an experience of a different order, stalking the line between two different worlds and imperfectly taking part in both. Such a place risks blasphemy at the same time that it returns reverence to risk.

–Dan Beachy-Quick

Poet Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book, Wonderful Meditations: Essays, Meditations, Tales is full of explorations around edges, boundaries and the invitation to cross over and into. Referencing Plato’s definition of a line as a point that flows, Beachy-Quick hopes that the reader of his book may find that point and “follow it as it flows toward that edge where the margin becomes a center, and the end of the book the hazy border to the wonder-world.”

How eloquent a description, and one that describes just what I hope happens when people invest the time to look at and be with my work. Once again I bow in appreciation to a poet’s ability to penetrate an experience I can feel but find difficult to articulate with words.

This concept also reminded me of one of my favorite posts by friend and artist Altoon Sultan on her always excellent blog, Studio and Garden, called The Burden of Content (which I recommend reading in its entirety.) She begins the post with this description of her own evolution as an artist:

Someone recently asked me why I’d stopped doing complex landscape paintings; I answered that I wanted to get closer to 20th century reductive abstraction, which I love. But that’s only part of the story: I also wanted to get out from under the heavy burden of content, the meaning––environmental, sociological––of those paintings. So this post is meant to tell the story of my journey, and it is related to my recent posts on William Carlos Williams, “no idea but in things”, and John Singleton Copley, “The Primacy of the Object”.

Altoon shares how her intentions and style of art making have moved over time. Starting with her early “‘portraits’ of domestic architecture” that expanded into an interest in larger agricultural landscapes, her focus just keeps morphing. Her eye moved in closer, and she became compelled by the very stuff of agriculture—the machinery, the implements, the silage. “I began to feel hemmed in by my content; what had motivated me before—the difficult environmental and social issues around farming—became extraneous to my concerns, which were formalist,” she writes.

And her final paragraph:

In 2010 I began to paint very small works on parchment; their compositions have become quite simple and direct….”no ideas but in things”….and the things are in themselves enough. I still find my subjects in agricultural implements; they have such variety of shape and color that they are of continual interest to me. But I don’t expect any story beneath them, any social/historical/environmental content; there is enough meaning and feeling and mystery in color/shape/form/light/composition.

Meaning and content are usually such loaded issues in the visual arts. Altoon’s ability to speak with such directness and honesty about her own experience of working through these issues is so refreshing, particularly with a topic that is usually fraught with equivocation and complexity. And where her work has taken her continues to be a wonder-world for me.

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The sand along the shore in Small Point, Maine: The water’s silky attention brought to bear

[Note: I had surgery on my right hand this week so my ability to type has been compromised while it heals. I am reposting from a few years ago since Jane Hirschfield continues to be a guiding force for me. And what a phrase--"honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life." I am so touched by that.]

I’ve posted a few Jane Hirschfield poems on this blog previously (here and here) and continue to explore her body of work. In the meantime I have been savoring her volume of essays about poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. As is often the case, musings on poetic invention are usually very apropos for visual art making as well.

Hirschfield’s first essay is about concentration, a term she uses to describe a particular state of awareness: “penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” She describes concentration that may be “quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought ‘too deep for tears.’”

Here are a few more insights into this idea:

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Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. they are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.

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Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.

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If you are looking for light holiday viewing, Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, isn’t it. If however you are compelled by the power of myth, by the archetype of the artist as a dark hero on a difficult journey, or have firsthand knowledge of how success is often dealt out by the cruel draconian dictum of “timing is everything,” Inside is a portrait that any artist will find familiar.

Llewyn Davis (portrayed with a pitch-perfect blend of frustating and sympathetic by Julliard-trained Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer in New York City during the early 60′s right at the cusp of folk music breaking into the mainstream after years of being underground and overlooked (in the final few moments of the film we watch Llewyn leave the Gaslight Cafe while Bob Dylan, newly arriving on the scene, is playing.) Loosely modeled after Dave Van Ronk‘s self portrait in his 2006 memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Llewyn is unlucky, unpleasant and while talented, not in possession of the kind of genius that might lead to international fame.

From Llewyn’s early performance of “I’ve Been All Around This World” with its more famous chorus of “Hang me, oh hang me, I’ll be dead and gone,” we then follow his very difficult life over the course of a few days. He is without a home and mooches for a couch to sleep on from anyone and everyone. His relationships with his “friends” and family are in various stages of broken disrepair, and he has a problem getting cats back to where they belong (there are two of them over the course of the film.) His hero’s descent is best epitomized by a nightmarish car trip to Chicago in a snow storm with two unsavory characters (one of them played by an unforgettable John Goodman) as well as one of the aforementioned misplaced cats. His destination, the folk nightclub called Gate of Horn,* proves to be another disappointment for this young and troubled artist who is only alive and connected with the sweet and the transcendent parts of life when he is singing.

From the LA Times review by Kenneth Turan:

Though Davis clearly has the karma of someone who couldn’t catch a break with both hands, “Inside” also reveals him to be a genuine artist willing to stoically suffer the cards dealt him if that’s necessary to preserve his creative integrity. It’s the film’s empathy with him, its sympathy with the plight of artists in general, that makes “Inside” an unexpectedly emotional piece.

Llewyn Davis is a complex, contradictory character who sometimes does the worst things for the best reasons and comes alive most fully, most appealingly, only when he sings. It’s a gift no one can take away from him, not even himself.

The notion of the struggling artist—one that values suffering as the price of great creativity—is frequently treated as an outdated 19th century concept that is not in keeping with our current fast paced, “no time for laggards”, DYI social culture. I have mixed feelings about the ease with which that meme is referenced and/or dismissed. It would be dishonest and a disservice to truth to eschew the extreme difficulty associated with being a committed, self-employed artist who neomances works into existence from their inchoate and imagined state. Not all artists pulled the rough road card of course, but there are way more of us, the yeoman foot travelers, than those lucky enough to make the journey in a cushioned carriage. Wherever you sit with how art comes into being, this film offers an unforgettable portrait of the darker side of a way of life that feels as if it chose us. Like Lleywn, I can’t not do what I do.

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*Homer explained that it is through the Gate of Horn that true dreams (rather than false or deluding ones) will pass.

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Conflagration, by Gordon Waters (Photo: Art collection of the University of Western Sydney)

After years of experience and a commitment to abstraction I am able to “forget myself” with greater ease. The pictures have begun to determine me instead of the other way around. In the process, a more cohesive body of work has evolved. So, what is my intent? If I knew the answer my journey would be complete. The brushes and the canvas and the paper could be stowed away because there would be no need to continue, no need to “find things out.”

–From a statement by Gordon Waters about a recent body of his work (Janet Clayton Gallery)

Many artists approach their art making with a focus and dedication similar to spiritual seekers on a wisdom path. For those who walk this way, the process requires patience and a daily practice of conscientious awareness, of an ongoing willingness to let go. Some believe the wisdom or The Way is already in us and just needs to be uncovered. However the path is found, it is not about a destination or an eventual arrival somewhere. After all, as Homer observed long ago, “The journey is the thing.”

An artist’s journey leaves a visual trail, but sometimes it comes with a written soundtrack as well. Well known artists including Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Agnes Martin broadened their work with words. But for most artists the proclivity is to visualize an idea, not language it.

Gordon Waters was a friend and visual artist living as an American expat in Sydney. Last February he passed away after a long battle with cancer, and his stateside friends and family gathered this weekend to remember his life and honor his work. As part of this remembrance, several of his paintings and prints were on view.

Gordon had his foot on several paths—a Buddhist as well as an artist, a painter as well as a writer. His life was a complex blend of passions, themes and beliefs. Piecing his multi-faceted story together from viewing the works on display would be nearly impossible.

But his visual body of work is not the only record we have. A few years before Gordon died, he took on a project of writing every day for one year about his life as a painter. That book, Unless Your Picture Goes Wrong It Will Be No Good: the Engaging, Mundane, Creative Year in the Life of a Painter, now stands as the most complete portrait of his life.

This record of one year is honest and unvarnished. Gordon talks about his discouragement over a show that didn’t do well, the frustrations of feeling stuck, the pique of envy when success comes to someone else. But it is also full of ecstasy: a celebration of the joy that looking, seeing, making and meditating brought to his life.

In response to an earlier Slow Muse post about the need for tenacity and grit, friend and reader Ann E. Michael wrote this:

I feel that the vast majority of the public has no understanding of the concept of a working artist. Of the novelists who write excellent, well-received books that don’t become best-sellers…of the poets who labor at their craft constantly in whatever hours they can set aside from their paying-the-bills jobs…of the working artists and sculptors and dancers and thespians who are not “geniuses” or celebrities but whose work enriches society and culture in many, many ways.

Art making is a universe of its own, and it often falls into the category of the ineffable. Gordon was uniquely ambidextrous, and how fortunate we are that he was. While his journey was tragically cut short, he has left a legacy that speaks to a fuller and more nuanced account.

When looking at a clear night sky
The stars set out like particles of sparkling sand
Across a great black sea
Please consider the word: firmament.

For no other galaxy of letters
So perfectly describes how
We are meant to be
Firmly
At the disposal
Of the majesty of the universe.

–Gordon Waters

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Memorial for Gordon Waters, October 26, 2013

Note: Gordon’s essay, We Are What We See, was published on Slow Muse in 2010.

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Grit-Rich

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In my studio: Hand molds in a peat bowl by friend and artist Rachel Parry. Parry made both of these objects from substances she found on her land in Allihies, Beara, Ireland.

Like most of my readers, I track creativity research like a part time job I’ll have for the rest of my life. With an increased interest in understanding how creativity and innovation play out in the arts as well as in every other aspect of life, good vetters on this research are a valuable resource. And no one vets the literature on creativity better than Maria Popova. (If you haven’t yet discovered her site Brainpickings, just one visit and you’ll understand why so many of us stop in every day.)

In a recent post, Popova highlights the work of MacArthur genius grantee Angela Duckworth. As a psychology researcher, Duckworth digs deep into understanding how people use self-control and “grit”—her term for that relentless work ethic of sustained commitment to a long term goal—to achieve success. Duckworth claims that character is at least as important as intellect and that the secret of genius is doggedness rather than innate talent.

(For those who are curious, take Duckworth’s quick test for measuring your grit.)

Sharon Loudon has offered up another window into how these qualities play out in that notoriously difficult, discouraging and yet deliciously satisfying profession of visual art. Her new book, Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists, shares the very personal stories of artists who have found a way to continue doing their work regardless of the financial, emotional, relational and obligational challenges that come with that profession.

What struck me while reading each of these personal histories was how direct and honest the accounts were. Loudon succeeded in maintaining a consistent point of view that thankfully sidesteps those notorious and irritating proclivities to narcissism (A recent article by Jill Steinhauer on Hyperallergic was titled, “Want to Be an Artist? Try a Little Narcissism.” No thanks.) Published by the British press Intellect, Living and Sustaining also stands out for its well designed blending of text, image and white space.

These stories are a heartening reminder that each of us has the option to fashion a career on our own terms. None of the artists included in this collection had success handed to them. They are all hard working and grit-rich.

Those qualities, very similar to Duckworth’s research, are captured in this heartening quote from Carter Foster, Curator of the Whitney Museum, which Loudon wisely placed at the beginning of the collection:

For me, artists are driven to do what they do no matter what. It’s a very powerful ambition and they pursue it in whatever way works best for them. Artists have a practice and pursuing and developing it is always the motivating factor, not whether or not they will sell something or even find a venue in which it can be seen. In my experience, artists are among the most self-motivated, organized, the most disciplined and the hardest working people I know. Sure, some artists are lucky enough that they can make a living doing it while other artists work day jobs or supplement their practice by teaching or other means. But I don’t think the distinction is important. It’s the seriousness of purpose that I admire the most.

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Edmund de Waal (Photo: Andrew Testa for The New York Times)

Mr. de Waal’s inspiration comes as much from poets and musicians as it does other artists: the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto “because of the abstract way he deals with an image”; composers like Steve Reich and John Adams, for their serial, repetitive music which “allows me to think about slow, incremental change”; poets like Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, “because of their cadences and passionate abstraction.”

–Carol Vogel, New York Times

Edmund de Waal first caught my eye when I read his bestselling (and only) book, The Hare With Amber Eyes. A ceramist who can write that well? Not what you would expect.

My interest was piqued further when I started seeing several articles about him prior to his show at Gagosian Gallery in New York. When I read the paragraph above I stopped short: every person he listed as an influence has had a major impact on me too. Hiroshi Sugimoto. Steve Reich. John Adams. Wallace Stevens. John Ashbery. How often is the list a perfect match?

In an interview with Iain Millar, de Waal speaks words that could have come out of me:

One of the really interesting things in contemporary art is about the loss of time. The process is neutral, it’s not a good thing or a bad thing, but long looking and long making do something different from short looking and short making.

He also addresses his discomfort when the making and the selling are too closely aligned, and more boldly, of his dislike of art fairs:

Millar: I was wondering what would bring you out in hives again.

de Waal: When I discovered that I don’t agree with art fairs, that an artist going to art fairs make me ill…

Millar: You’re a refusnik?

de Waal: The brutality and the commodification of what you’ve just done is just too total for me. I’m English enough to enjoy that separation. I like making stuff, talking about how it’s going to be curated and then finding out later about whether someone’s bought it or not. That interim process of seeing it being sold is a bit of a shock.

Which brings me around to his show at Gagosian. I was very moved by this show, and yet there is a but in my praise. While de Waal’s work has that much needed—and often hard to describe—quality I call presence, it felt compromised, its energy muffled.

My reservations have something to do with the same words de Waal used to describe art fairs: brutality, and commodification. My problem is not with the work but with the context.

de Waal’s work is not suited for the environment of a Gagosian Gallery. I would have had a very different experience had it been installed at the Rubin Museum surrounded by sacral Himalayan art, or in a large non-secular (used here to mean non-art world) space. The experience this work offers is fragile, quiet, delicate and rare. Those nuanced responses are drowned out in a Gagosian where the commodification is steroidal.

As a result the work can be misread and misunderstood. Not surprisingly reviews of the show have been extremely bifurcated. For example Roberta Smith, usually a favorite writer, was very dismissive:

Time spent with Mr. de Waal’s work can teach a lot about the nuances of ceramics, but his work is ostentatiously precious and ultimately naïve. It forces a pastiche of received art ideas through the sieve of a different medium, gaining a physical distinctiveness, but little more. Too bad he found ceramics itself so deficient.

If naïveté is de Waal’s flaw, then so be it. Not knowing where to place his work may also be part of that. Martin Roth, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum said, “He doesn’t fit into a niche, and that’s his strength. He’s not copying 18th-century or ancient Asian porcelain. His work is completely modern, but it is steeped in a great knowledge of history.”

In de Waal’s words:

I make objects out of porcelain, which are vessels. And I put them in different kinds of cabinets and vitrines and then put those into different spaces. So what is it? It’s patently sculpture of a kind, it talks to architecture I hope, it’s very much rooted in poetry and music, it’s pottery at a very real level. But it doesn’t slip effortlessly into a contemporary genre.

The show is on view until October 19.

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