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Ocean, by Vija Celmins, 2003 (Photo: C4 Gallery)

Dave Hickey has written about art by cantankerously taking down the academic art establishment, languaging his outrage in a spectrum that ranges from snarky to lyrical, oscillating in tone between a Walt Whitman-like effulgence to just one more Western cowboy dopey dude. He’s not my favorite critic (that spot will always be held by Carl Belz), but I agree with him more often than not. What’s more, I always read what he writes. And given his refusal to engage in the mumbo-jumbo terminology of Art World Mandarin, he reaches a larger audience than most art writers.

His latest book is 25 Women: Essays on their Art. For the most part these short pieces were previously published, commissioned by museums and galleries, so the tone is one of appreciation and advocacy rather than critique. I don’t know every artist included here, but the book is full of those Hickey moments that no one else can deliver.

“Most of my favorite people are women,” he proclaims in the introduction, which might surprise some of his detractors who think of him as just more more white guy art critic. But two deceased women appear larger than life as his reasons for writing this book: the curator Marcia Tucker (“my first rabbi in the art world”), and his own mother Helen Hickey, an academic and an artist with whom he had a very difficult relationship.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Hickey wrote the book “because I couldn’t find one book of collected essays out there about women artists. There’s a lot of books about menopause, and a lot about how you get a gallery, but nothing seriously addressing the work women make.” May this be the first of many.

Two of my favorite essays in the collection are, understandably, artists whose works have influenced my own: Joan Mitchell and Vija Celmins. Hickey captures essential qualities in Mitchell’s work with epigrammatic clarity: “She could make any mark but she never fell in love with one, just with the speed of it.” On Celmins: “Celmin’s work for all its coolness is always haunted by an atmosphere of loss.” Hickey pairs Mitchell with words from Catullus (“I hate and love. Perhaps you’re asking why I do that?/I don’t know but I feel it happening and I am racked.”) And for Celmins, he turns to heavyweights Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: “History is always written from a sedentary point of view, even when the topic is nomads. What is lacking is a Nomadology, the opposite of a history.” These pairings felt pitch perfect.

I resonated with Chloe Wyma‘s conclusion to her review in the New York Times:

Hickey is neither art criticism’s reactionary philosopher king nor its populist Robin Hood, but a sensualist with an acquired taste for art that is resistant to interpretation and unapologetically elitist, a term he halfheartedly redeems as a positive value. He’s a colorful essayist and a perceptive critic. His popularity points to a real problem: Many people feel alienated by contemporary art and the obscure, pleasureless language that encrusts it. Those who don’t cringe at the mention of identity politics, who maintain hope for art as a space for beauty and justice, pleasure and politics, would do well to borrow Hickey’s tools to dismantle his house.

Ain’t it the truth: Many people feel alienated by contemporary art and the obscure, pleasureless language that encrusts it. I’m grateful to Hickey for offering up something else.

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Sleep On It


Installation by Jan Baker, RISD

Kyna Leski is a teacher, architect and artist. Her book, The Storm of Creativity, is a thoughtful journey through the process of bringing something into form that does not yet exist.

Leski does not take an authoritative approach, gratefully, and she leaves lots of room for her “map” to speak to the highly personal nature of creativity. But her categories—which are each a chapter—make for a good list of guide posts:

Creativity as Storm
Unlearning
Problem Making
Gathering and Tracking
Propelling
Perceiving and Conceiving
Seeing Ahead
Connecting
Pausing
Continuing

Here is a sampling from Leski on the subject of pausing:

You can treat your pause as the opposite of other stages of the creative process…Instead of connecting, take a break. Not tracking, but being tracked by the exact idea, answer, insight that you were seeking and tracking. Rather than gathering, let go. Instead of paying attention, be distracted. No propelling, but stopping the current motion of the process. “Sleep on it.”

I see pausing as an opportunity to see external to the frame you have already established, to allow new stimuli to enter the creative process, to prompt another idea. It is a chance to step off the reiterative track of logical decisions. It frees you from the concrete and reintroduces abstraction. It can be the chance to transform what you are working on through connections not previously made. By stopping, for whatever length of time, you weaken your willful grip, and can become more open and more open minded.

That’s good material for my week away from the studio.

Thank you to my friend Jan Baker for sending me this book.

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Charlene Spretnak is a scholar who has blended interests. She has written books on ecology, ecofeminism, politics (she is a cofounder of the Green Party in the US), art, and spirituality. With a formidable CV and a demonstrated knowledge of art and art history (she has taught art history, inter alia, at the California Institute of Integral Studies), she is not a member however of the anointed art world cognoscenti.

Which is probably why she could write the book I have been waiting to read for years.

The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present, is a much needed counter punch to the predominant narrative about modern art that has squelched this particular story line. While Spretnak does not embrace a conspiratorial view as to why the spiritual has been eliminated from the etiology of contemporary art, she is very thorough in demonstrating that the denial has been both deep and wide. By going to original sources and finding statements made by many prominent artists, both historical and contemporary, she successfully uncovers a significant interest in the spiritual aspects of art making.

As Spretnak begins to unravel this buried story line, she asks a number of her friends—John Walsh, the director of the Getty Museum at the time, and art historian Peter Selz—why the spiritual was frequently denied or squelched. Both answered that question with the exact same words: “We just weren’t taught that way.” With a generosity others might not embrace, Spretnak points to experiments in psychology that have demonstrated that “once someone is educated in a particular frame of reference during his or her formative years, subsequent events and information that do not fit within that framework often do not register.”

Spretnak does nail a few particularly guilty parties, deservedly. Alfred H. Barr, Jr, the first director of the Museum of Art, curated an exhibit called Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. In that show Barr presented an entirely formalistic interpretive framework for the new art, influenced as he did so by Heinrich Wölfflin‘s principles of “scientific art criticism.” Barr asserted, amazingly, that cubistic and abstracted art arose because “the artists had grown bored with painting facts, that is, naturalistic forms.”

Although his exhibition displayed numerous paintings by artists who had published clear statements about the metaphysical meaning of their art, those were not referred to in his essay in the catalog. The spiritual dimension was simply removed from serious discussion of the art. Not only was this exhibit influential in New York but it then traveled to six cities. By the 1950s the entire history of modern art was framed by the premises of formalism…In this exclusively formalist narrative, the subject matter of the paintings, whether it may have been spiritual or otherwise, is entirely beside the point.

And then of course there was the legacy of formalist art critic Clement Greenberg.

The general attitude that denies a spiritual dimension in modern and contemporary art has, according to Spretnak, “wobbled” a bit in the last few years and is less severe than it was in the 50’s and 60s. But Ken Johnson, writing in the New York Times in 2005, still observed that “Academic art historians and critics still tend to discourage talking seriously about the spiritual in art. But considering how many artists continue to be motivated by spiritual urges, however the word spiritual is defined—this is something worth discussing.”

How that word is defined IS an issue. At a time when religion and spirituality take on so many connotations, it can be problematic. “Some feel the term spirituality has been so stretched out and bounced around by pop culture and the media that it has lost any substantive meaning.” Wisely Spretnak turns to her friend, artist Richard Tuttle, to craft a more useful definition:

Given the vague, and sometimes trivializing, uses of the term in recent decades, I appreciate the artist Richard Tuttle’s comment to me on this matter: “What I want more than anything is a definition of spirituality that is trustworthy.” Indeed—and to be so it must necessarily extend beyond a focus on the self to a sense of our embeddedness in the larger context: the exquisitiely dynamic interrelatedness of existence, the vibratory flux of the subtle realms of the material world, and the ultimate creativity of the universe. The cosmos is infused with an unfolding dynamic of becoming and a unitive dimension of being. Spirituality is the awareness of and engagement with that unity and those dynamics.

Over the last nine years of writing Slow Muse, the theme that underlies so much of what I have covered is in line with Spretnak’s definition of spirituality. This book codifies the many urgings, intuitions and personal proclivities that I have tried to assemble in the content of this blog. So of course I have marked up and underlined every page of this small book, and I read it through twice as a way of grounding Spretnak’s arguments into my nomenclature. Many of her chapter heads are useful categories for moving through a landscape that can feel a bit muddled. Esoteric spirituality, allusive spirituality, the spirituality of immanence—these are useful terms.

This isn’t a book for just browsing. There is so much of value on every single page. The quotes Spretnak has uncovered from several of my favorite artists are ones I’d like to memorize as a way of reminding myself what this mysterious process is really about—not just for my kind of art making, but for the art making of so many others as well.

Once the evidence is truly acknowledged, the history of modern art looks quite different from the proscribed narrative. It is less a linear account than a richly varied landscape, made verdant in numerous places by the great underground river of the spiritual in modern art. Hence the aim of this book is rather like the process in ecological restoration known as “daylighting” underground streams by removing the cement culverts that enclose them and allowing them to be seen in their natural habitats.

I can’t imagine a single reader of Slow Muse who wouldn’t love this book. Finally, the daylighting has begun.

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“Guardians of the Secret”, collage by Barry Swyers, an artist and friend who passed away earlier this year.

Artist Ben La Rocco in conversation with Craig Olson, on Hyperallergic:

There is some kind of confusion in my nature with regard to received methods of doing things. I’ve always had it. I’m left handed, mildly dyslexic as a kid, which I think are physical symptoms of doubt: do I really have to do things the way I’m being shown? I’m not sure I’ve jettisoned any principles in my work because I’ve always felt it was incumbent on me to go beyond whatever understanding I had of what I’ve been taught. So art is always transforming itself, which I guess doesn’t leave much room for formal considerations. And I’m not a formalist. I’ve always believed in the space where painting joins all the other arts—performance for example. To access this space we must always question all of our presuppositions, all of our training.

So the materials that I work with are always a means to this end. I want to know how to respect the nature of an object—to let it be itself—and at the same time allow imaginative transformation to act upon it. I want to see the intertwining of fantasy and reality as it takes place. My will is to remove my will from the situation! I’m glad you see a subversive quality in the work. From my perspective, seeing the work on display, it’s striking how much I’ve imposed myself on the material.

There is some kind of confusion in my nature with regard to received methods of doing things. This passage resonates with my rule bending/breaking, transgressively-inclined, “don’t tell me what to do” nature. Of course we all make choices about what to jettison and what to keep, in art making and in our lives. But La Rocco’s honesty is particularly refreshing and reassuring.

Barry Swyers* created work that hovers above that volatile border between the sacred and the profane. A monk who left the monastic life to live in San Francisco, his work explored that intersection with tenacity, intelligence and delight. His collages create images and symbols that invite viewers into an unexpectedly transcendent view. His pieces lift something in me.

My work has a transcendent intention as well, but I am using the language of nonrepresentationalism to explore the relationship between the material and the spiritual. I am interested in how matter transcends sheer physicality and crosses over into the transcendent, into the sacralized. While Barry and I work in very different styles and content, our work shares a kind of outsider sensibility, an interest in creating an alternative sense of this shared reality.

The refrain from a song on Servant of Love, the latest release from the genre-resistant Patty Griffin, keeps playing in my head:

There isn’t one way
There isn’t one way
There’s just your way for you
And that’s the right way.

Going back into the Slow Muse archive, I found a number of posts that touch into a similar theme: art that takes a counter position, works that stays true—stubbornly—to what feels “right” to the artist in the most personal sense. Here are a few additional Slow Muse links if this is a theme that speaks to you too:

Transgressive Women

In the End, You Can’t Tell Me What to Do

Keeping it Fresh

Bruce Conner: Authentic Tomfoolery

Aware, Aware, Aware

Tribeswoman

Phenomenal Presence: Robert Irwin

*Barry Swyers had a supportive circle of friends and admirers in his life, including my friends Kevin Simmers and Ed Carrigan. But he was not a self promoter. There are very few of his works that can be seen online. In addition to the piece above, I have two others in my collection, viewable here.

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Lori Ellison: Untitled, ink on paper, 8.5 x 11″, 2006 (Photo: McKenzie Fine Art)
Lori Ellison: Untitled, ink on paper, 8.5 x 11″, 2012 (Photo: McKenzie Fine Art)

Over the nine years of writing this blog, I have returned frequently to the theme of staying open, vulnerable and accessible in the art making process. The Zen tradition has an apt phrase, the “don’t-know mind.” There is also a quiet word for this particular kind of receptivity: modesty.

Artists and modesty, in the same sentence? Some would say that isn’t a likely pairing. And some would say it isn’t a desirable quality for an artist anyway.

But it is for me. And that is in spite of a long history of artists perceived as anything but modest. From an essay by Eric Gibson, Can Artists Ever Truly Be Modest? on In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues:

Among the virtues commonly attributed to artists, modesty, it can confidently be said, is not to be found. In their professional capacity, painters and sculptors may be described as “visionary,” “innovative,” and the like. As human beings, however, they are almost always spoken of in pejorative terms. As Rudolf and Margot Wittkower observe in their 1963 book, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, “There is an almost unanimous belief among [laymen] that artists are, and always have been, egocentric, temperamental, neurotic, rebellious, unreliable, licentious, extravagant, obsessed by their work, and altogether difficult to live with”…

A robust ego is necessary to a successful artist.

Gibson goes deeper into these stereotypical perceptions, and he gets to the heart of a dichotomy: “Artists lead two lives, one outside the studio, and one in it. And it is in the life within what one writer describes as ‘imagination’s chamber’—with the blank canvas, the bucket of cold clay, or the virgin block of stone—that ego falls away.”

That is an essential tension that most artists confront: Receptivity and vulnerability are needed in the studio. But outside that space, confidence and clarity are essential for navigating in the external world.

It is easy to spot those artists who are very good at one end of the spectrum but fall short at the other. We’ve all known “atelier” artists—the ones who only want to make their art and leave all the external demands to someone else. Then of course there are those high visibility strutters, the ones who are gifted at self promotion and treat art making as secondary (or as is often the case now, turn it over to others to do.)

Like most artists, I would like to be good at the making and the merchandising. It is a balancing act, and there are seasons when I have to focus on one at the expense of the other. Meanwhile modesty isn’t a quality that gets advocated all that much. It is often equated with size, as in small.

Mira Schor breaks that open with an essay she wrote 15 years ago, Modest Painting:

Enormous size certainly intends to call attention to itself, but modest paintings are not necessarily small, and small paintings are not necessarily modest…modesty is not synonymous with a lack of rigor or ambition for painting. In fact, modesty may emerge from an artist’s emphasis on rigor or ambition for painting itself rather than for his or her career.

Schor’s words bring to mind several artists I admire. One is Lori Ellison. A painter as well as a poet, Lori was well known for both her exceptionally compelling work as well as her consistent and thoughtful advocacy for the importance of staying humble. After her untimely death in September, I have been going back to reread her words.

She shares her wisdom in an interview with Ashley Garrett from 2014 on Figure/Ground: An open-source, para-academic, inter-disciplinary collaboration:

[Ashley Garrett:] A lot has been said by you and others about the concept of scale and the effect it has on the making of your work. Can you talk a little bit more about your attraction to what you’ve called the humble scale and how you discovered that a smaller intimate scale is right for your work?

[Lori Ellison:] To best answer this, I will share an essay I wrote on humility and making small work:

In Richmond, Virginia there once was a gallery named RAW for Richmond Artists Workshop that had an exhibition of many works entitled “Small Art Goes directly to the Brain.”

If one is lucky, Small Art goes directly to the heart. For this it must be humble and on a suitably modest scale – in this way some work can be crowned Great. (Golda Meir once said “don’t be humble, you aren’t that great.”) To work with humility, one must acquire some of the practical virtues artists need: diligence, temperance, modesty, bravery, ardor, devotion and economy.

To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit. Phillip Guston famously said he went to work in his studio every single day because what if he didn’t and “that day the angel came”? Henry James once said, “We work in the dark, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” Doubt is humility after a long, long apprenticeship.

Small works dance a clumsy tango with one’s shadow. Huge works can ice skate over one’s nerves, file under fingernails on a chalkboard—I can just hear the screeching.

If our work is so small and reticent that one doesn’t enter the space of the painting, no mind—we just might be making work that enters straight into the viewer’s ribs. I am weary of art that tickles my forehead for an instant and is gone—I am looking for the kind that thrums in my chest and lodges there, in memory, like those souvenir phials of the air of Paris Duchamp proposed.

Proportion based on the lyric, not the epic—that is where the juice lives. Stirred, not shaken. Duchamp once said that art is the electricity that goes between the metal pole of the work of art and the viewer, and I don’t need shock treatment. Art that is the size and resonance of a haiku, quiet and solid as the ground beneath one’s feet—not art that wears a monocle and boxing gloves in hopes of knocking other art out of the room. A discrete art, valiantly purified of the whole hotchpotch of artist’s tricks and tics.

That, that is what I am looking for.

As am I, Lori. As am I.

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Thank you to everyone who joined in at the opening reception of my show, “The Light Within”, at Brooklyn Workshop Gallery last Thursday, September 17. The paintings were beautifully echoed in the ceramic work by Amani Ansari. It was a great night.

Special thanks to the amazing BWG team—Martine Bisagni, Amani Ansari and Iviva Olenick, and a host of gifted musicians—Michael Irwin and his trio, plus the dulcet tonalities of Graham Haynes. In the company of celebrants and friends, I had an unforgettable evening.

I will be at the gallery for two more events. Please stop by if you are in town.

Saturday, September 26
“Meet and greet”
Noon to 5pm

Sunday, October 11
Closing celebration
Noon to 6pm

Brooklyn Workshop Gallery
393 Hoyt Street
(Carroll Gardens)
Brooklyn NY
(F/G to Carroll Street)

Gallery hours:
Fridays, 1-8pm
Saturday and Sunday, 12-7pm
Tuesday through Thursday, by appointment
718.797.9428

A selection of photos by friends Iviva Olenick, Paula Overbay, Amber Gaia and Arthur Steuer:

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With Amani Ansari (right) and Iviva Olenick (left)

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Martine Bisagni

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Garden jazz with Michael Irwin and friends

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Love those Indian sweets!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this memorable quote, from Vija Celmins in conversation with Ken Price:

I remember Brancusi said, “Art should be like a well planned crime.” Which is to say that you don’t discuss it before, and you don’t talk much about it afterwards either.

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

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

In the end, the painting does stand alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s just from the preface.

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

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

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

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

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

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agnes_martin_1954_1
Agnes Martin (Photo: Mildred Tolbert)

From the newly released Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal:

Martin’s mature paintings (she destroyed most of her early work) are incontrovertibly right, in the sense that they convince us that not a single preliminary decision or incident of execution could have been changed without damage. Composed of the simplest elements, including ruled, penciled lines and a narrow range of forms—grids, stripes, and, very occasionally, circles, triangles and squares—and painted in a limited palette on canvases that are always square, they reveal an esthetic sense that is, as her friend Ann Wilson said, the visual equivalent of perfect pitch.

What a thing to say about a body of work: pitch perfect. Having just gone through the arduous task of culling through my archives and throwing out a lot of old work, that perfect pitchness looms as a specter. We all want to achieve that with every piece, but it is a rare state.

I am not a perfectionist (which would be a crippling quality for anyone who learns by doing), but my decision to keep a work or to give it a toss came down to which pieces could hold that essential tension, a version of Wilson’s perfect pitch. There has to be something in the intrinsic energetics of the work that holds the parts together in a precarious, “this almost doesn’t work but it does” delicate balancing. In its own way it is a kind of immutability: that a particular painting is just what it must be, and wouldn’t work in any other form.

Noguchi said, “For artists there is no such thing as progress. It’s only a deepening.” That’s definitely the direction.

And apropos to that, another passage from Princenthal’s wonderful book:

To be abstracted is to be at some distance from the material world. It is a form of local exaltation but also, sometimes, even disturbance…Agnes Martin, one of the most esteemed abstract painters of the second half of the twentieth century, expressed—and, at times, dwelled in—the most extreme forms of abstraction: pure, silencing, enveloping, and upending.

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