WHY DON'T YOU GIVE IT AWAY MORE EASILY?
May 2, 2013
Although there seems to be a mountain of evidence to the contrary in the form of intellectual analysis, handbooks, financial algorithms and teaching fads, what makes a painting moving remains a secret: see the hand of the imitator fail, see the flares of the hero burn off with his age, see the earnest artist make nothing of her hope, see the shallow passages of the virtuoso, see the sharp booted semiotician's knotty work, see the market favorito strut his rhinestoned muteness, see the sweet broccoli-eating naturalist deliver a sponge cake, see the timid speech of the academic, see the pious craft an earthly lump, see the baroque hollowness of the informed. Once you have seen them all, then stare at the light coming off a great painting and try to extract its inner workings, its source.
If you look long enough, you will probably come away from this research with two conclusions.
1) There are very high standards of quality we seldom reach in our work.
2) The energy source of a great painting is a secret.
The first of these conclusions is useful as a beacon, particularly in the face of the always-present human tendency to obscure fear and shortcomings with talk, distraction, power, religion, consensus, or lies. The second separates the reaching from the having. Even though you might be a faithful student of painting and that devotion might help you learn the way a work is made, considered and positioned, as many mediocre paintings prove, the source of the work's energy remains secret.
Many people are discouraged by this stubborn silence and with good reason. Painting is—depending on your point of view—an ungrateful master or a disloyal servant. No amount of flourish or restraint, and no amount of sacrifice or indulgence, can guarantee results. Painting remains impassive to our offerings, to our life, to our claims, to our connections, to our titles, to our past accomplishments, and to just about everything else.
Authenticity might be the only way towards the light of a great painting, but even if this assertion were to be the case, it is of limited help. The equation between authenticity, subjectivity, talent, experience, interior capacity, is beyond most of our algebras. Nonetheless, keeping authenticity in mind might help you waste less time.
April 16, 2013
THE GREAT RACE
March 12, 2013
Many of my friends don't go to McDonald's, so they are missing some
discoveries that seem to only happen in its franchises. There is one
McDonald's in particular which is worth a visit if you ever find yourself in
Delray Beach. It is decorated with a racing theme—a real car in a plexiglass
box, pictures of car races, mannequins in racing gear—and 50s music plays on the coinless jukebox.
There are many things to say about the place, but what I find most remarkable is how the combination of frozen speed, nostalgia, and burger scent strangles me with loneliness, and probably because there is something heartbreaking about a checkered flag pattern near a toilet, I find the loneliest area of this restaurant is the bathroom. Recently, a repair was made to its wall that has added new emotional twists, and today I stood in front of this near-miss patch thinking it was just another case of caring-but-not-enough.
But when I stepped back into the restaurant and saw that the jacket in the plexiglass case was bleached by the sun, I realized the race enthusiast who owns that McDonald's is tired. Then I thought, tiredness is the ending of all things, and on my way out, I looked around missing whoever had bothered to put the whole place together.
THE REGRET OF THE MOUNTING DRAGON
February 25, 2013
I once knew a gallerist who hoped to do something significant, not something significant in the world of dealmaking, although that too, but significant in the historic sense. He spoke of greatness and he had the ability to excite other people, to convince them of his dreams, and whether you believed him or not, it felt good to be in his company.
I have also met artists with similar hopes, and occasionally collectors, curators, theologians and arts administrators. But these dreamy motivations tend to only fuel the early part of a career, when the real world, as it is sometimes called, has not yet revealed itself fully. Eventually, most of these dreamers get tired of struggling and life gets in the way of their dreams.
Some claim they learned the way things work and others that they are only buying time until they won't have to compromise anymore.
Perhaps all these claims are true. But it is also true that the lesson of how things work and temporary compromises crowd the heart, and as Yoshida Kenko writes in Essays in Idleness, in all things, where there is no room for advance decay is at hand.
January 2, 2013
Recently, I found these two sentences in an article about Alain-Fournier in
In the last year of his life Fournier had shaken off his daydreams. In death they defined him.
December 15, 2012
In this neighborhood debates are carried on the walls of buildings. This is partly the legacy of Tony Goldman, a developer who in 2009 came up with the idea of transforming the warehouse district of Wynwood into "giant canvases to bring to them the greatest street art ever seen in one place." Despite Goldman's enthusiasm, many of the owners and renters of the tow lots, thrift stores, galleries, studios, and homeless shelters that make up the neighborhood don't welcome the art on their walls, so the street artists work mostly at night and on weekends. This makes mornings, especially Monday mornings, always a surprise. This weekend my studio was spared, but the pink building across the street was spray-painted with two lines of text separated by a roll up door, "I am not defined by your ignorance," and "I am beauty. I am love." Signed by TMNK.
Reading this bit of Aquarian wall wisdom, I thought of writing underneath it, "no, you are defined by your own," but maybe I was just talking to myself.
Daily, if not hourly, I feel my ignorance, my limitations, hemming in my choices and my dreams—defining me—and I suspect it is the same for TMNK. I feel it most when standing in front of one of my paintings sensing my ideas are circumscribed by what I know, by who I am. Perhaps at times we are lucky enough to sense the radiance of the world, and then, caught by the exhilaration, we feel we are beauty. Love. But we always return to our long list of shortcomings and to our ignorance. An artist has to start in those shortcomings, in that ignorance, rather than in the beauty or the love. Artists who try to start with the light make decorative and mute work. Like a bean sprout, light comes from and through the dirt.
ON COMPLAINTS ABOUT THE ART MARKET
December 14, 2012
A friend recently sent me an article criticizing the art market in which its author, Felix Salmon, conveys disgust for what he sees as an environment of excess and compromised ideals. The article circles the familiar absurdities and the author supports his insights with quotes from Dave Hickey, who claims to have recently quit the artworld, and from Sarah Thornton, who quit writing about the economics of art.
I sympathize with Salmon's indignation. Many concerns of the art market have little to do with quality and much to do with trends and trades, and its machinations tend to reward indulgence, insecurity, and immediate gratification, especially if there is a great deal of money involved. In this market it is not unusual for major acquisitions to depend on hearsay and superficial, mostly circumstantial, knowledge, and there is a frequent collusion of taste and positions between museums, art galleries, collectors, critics and fairs, which one suspects it is not so much a conspiracy for power as it is a compact based on fear.
So I sympathize with Salmon, but he did not construct a convincing argument against the problem. He stomped the floor, pointed his finger, and called for something more authentic to rise from the ether. This outburst, while dramatic and probably heartfelt, does not clarify the problem, in part because his article centers the conversation—not unlike the environment he criticizes—on artworld players rather than on art.
This is not a surprising strategy. Speaking about players, production, prices, absurdities, and indignities is easier than speaking about quality. But the superficiality of the market, the fast rise of some artists, and the transitory quality of many collections, cannot be understood solely by considering the dynamics of money, narcissism, and status. Shchukin and Frick, for instance, had money and bought work for their mansions, and so did many other wealthy people who built good collections and who were not necessarily kinder or more socially minded than today's plutocrats.
One reason why it is difficult to construct an argument against the glitterati of the artworld and its affections is because counter examples are not obvious. There are many factions in the artworld, but beyond the labels and the rhetoric, the imperative of most of these factions is reproduction and survival, which usually means proclivity to self-indulgence, lack of authenticity, and convenience. For example, Salmon uses Hickey, who he calls a doyen of American critics, to show the good ones are heading for the doors, but Hickey, who says he came to art because of sex, drugs and Roy Lichtenstein, is an uncertain moral compass if what we hope to find is clarity and not flourish. Salmon also uses Thornton's refusal to write about the economics of art as a sign of the deteriorating situation, but after reading Seven Days in the Art World, and her articles on Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, I wish she would have quit earlier. So, I am not impressed by his examples, nor am I moved by his calling for equality, honesty and human scale as possible alternatives to what he calls the obscenity of the artworld.
Art—as anyone who has seriously tried to create it could confirm—does not care for equality, and does not spring from, or can be measured by, a human scale. Art is resistant to good intentions, and hermetic when confronted by what people usually consider art knowledge, especially of the kind who-what-when. Of course, it is disconcerting to see a still-life by Edouard Manet amid a circus of self-importance and shiny trinkets, but the problem is not so much a market controlled by wealthy opportunists. The same Manet would look pained amid pedantic academic talks or hanging next to dim-witted socially conscious art. Confusion and mediocrity are the real threats. I feel them, and I know they also haunt the gray-haired guru in New Mexico, the sharp-dressed gallery owner in New York, and the oligarch in Moscow.
Ultimately, the problem I have with Salmon's article is that he is not the ally I would want against the nonsense of the artworld. His choices of good guys, for instance, tell me he and I don't seek the same solutions. Like many people I know, he seems repulsed by a few popular artists, but this repulsion doesn't make his ideas or the art he likes better. Moral outrage does not, in itself, make anyone moral. I know artists who seem to feel their dislike of Koons or Cattelan make them more authentic, and yet their work shows they are not. I know writers with all the right heroes whose opinions are questionable. For instance, the British newspaper The Observer quotes Will Gompertz, the BBC's arts editor, as saying, "There are important artists like Ai Weiwei and Peter Doig, who produces beautiful and haunting paintings in similar ways to Edward Hopper." What does he mean by "in similar ways?" I can't think of any relationship, except the most banal, between Doig and Hopper. Yet, it is likely that to some readers Gompertz's statement will sound right, even insightful, because these two artists paint scenes and lonely figures.
Art exists despite the interlocutors, the vultures and the fancy-pants, even if it often has to go underground to survive the spectacle of the trends and chases of the art market, or the war of academic and journalistic opinions. As many artists have shown, it exists when no one is clear enough to recognize it. Art survives the muck we artists make of ourselves in search for light, and it also survives hanging in museum rooms with the now-dull luminaries of the past. The aura and the symbolic arguments notwithstanding, it survives not as a form of production, a convention, or the given outcome of an artistic activity, but as a transformative experience undiminished by its surroundings.
November 2, 2012
A lot has been said about existence, essence, thought, identity, the am, the first I, the second I, etc., in regards to those philosophical propositions, I think, therefore I am, and I think, therefore I exist.
But in the last few years it has been that deceiving adverb, therefore, which I have found intriguing. Therefore asserts logical consequence, inevitability, self-evidence, but, if I were to overcome the argument (not easy to do) that existence is already presupposed in thinking, then nothing about I am or I exist seems a self-evident consequence of I think. It is not my hack philosophy that matters to me here, but the recognition, once again, that many ostensibly obvious steps are not so obvious. Secrets rumble under the surface of things and strangeness hovers around the familiar.
October 28, 2012
It is not hard to make a convincing argument that pandering, mediocrity, fad-hounds and manipulation have always been around. Nonetheless, the like button that appears on many websites (including the Facebook page where my studio posts notices about the work) typifies our moment, and its popularity is a harbinger of what is to come.
To understand what we are wrestling with, try this experiment: read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, then click a like button somewhere to offer your positive feedback on the book.
October 8, 2012
He found a delightful house, just the thing both he and his wife had dreamt of. Spacious, lofty reception rooms in the old style, a convenient and dignified study, rooms for his wife and daughter, a study for his son—it might have been specially built for them. Ivan Ilych himself superintended the arrangements, chose the wallpapers, supplemented the furniture (preferably with antiques which he considered particularly comme il faut), and supervised the upholstering. Everything progressed and progressed and approached the ideal he had set himself: even when things were only half completed they exceeded his expectations. He saw what a refined and elegant character, free from vulgarity, it would all have when it was ready. On falling asleep he pictured to himself how the reception room would look. Looking at the yet unfinished drawing room he could see the fireplace, the screen, the what-not, the little chairs dotted here and there, the dishes and plates on the walls, and the bronzes, as they would be when everything was in place. He was pleased by the thought of how his wife and daughter, who shared his taste in this matter, would be impressed by it. They were certainly not expecting as much. He had been particularly successful in finding, and buying cheaply, antiques which gave a particularly aristocratic character to the whole place. But in his letters he intentionally understated everything in order to be able to surprise them. All this so absorbed him that his new duties—though he liked his official work—interested him less than he had expected. Sometimes he even had moments of absent-mindedness during the court sessions and would consider whether he should have straight or curved cornices for his curtains. He was so interested in it all that he often did things himself, rearranging the furniture, or rehanging the curtains. Once when mounting a step-ladder to show the upholsterer, who did not understand, how he wanted the hangings draped, he mad a false step and slipped, but being a strong and agile man he clung on and only knocked his side against the knob of the window frame. The bruised place was painful but the pain soon passed, and he felt particularly bright and well just then. He wrote: "I feel fifteen years younger." He thought he would have everything ready by September, but it dragged on till mid-October. But the result was charming not only in his eyes but to everyone who saw it.
In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes—all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional. He was very happy when he met his family at the station and brought them to the newly furnished house all lit up, where a footman in a white tie opened the door into the hall decorated with plants, and when they went on into the drawing-room and the study uttering exclamations of delight. He conducted them everywhere, drank in their praises eagerly, and beamed with pleasure. At tea that evening, when Praskovya Fedorovna among others things asked him about his fall, he laughed, and showed them how he had gone flying and had frightened the upholsterer.
"It's a good thing I'm a bit of an athlete. Another man might have been killed, but I merely knocked myself, just here; it hurts when it's touched, but it's passing off already—it's only a bruise."
So they began living in their new home—in which, as always happens, when they got thoroughly settled in they found they were just one room short—and with the increased income, which as always was just a little (some five hundred rubles) too little, but it was all very nice.
Excerpt from The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy
THE HUNT'S WILL
September 20, 2012
My upcoming exhibition at LA Louver in Venice will present paintings and sculptures created over the last two years whose central concept is a state of heightened awareness brought forth by the layering of two conditions, which depending on viewpoint are either two aspirations or two traumas: a life under threat of forgetfulness and the collision between what one hopes and what happens.
The title of the exhibition points to the tension between will and choices, in particular the mysterious dynamic of will, identity, and longing, binding together those two aspirational or traumatic layers. The exhibition is assembled using all the spaces in the gallery and simultaneously pursues the monumental and the seemingly insignificant, the intellectual and the commonplace, the conceptual and the physical. The works bring together images belonging to the imagination of a child—ships, tigers, unicorns, dogs, birds—and images with epic overtones—bullfighters, roses, decapitation, sea, ice, landscape. The friction between these references seem to bring forth surprise, nostalgia, visions of an alternative life, and the difficulty of knowing the difference between the recalled and the real.
Perhaps more colorful and more narrative than previous projects, these figurative works are unsettling in that once they are carefully considered they appear not to be about telling stories or about art, but instead show themselves to be an attempt to document the undocumentable, in particular the collision between hope and loss.
My goal is to create a new world in which the forces that matter, which are often clouded by familiarity, tiredness and cynicism, become clear again. Undoubtedly, my work has connections to real events and to memories, but it is not autobiographical in the sense that my life is not what interests me. What I am after is not the telling, but the explorations of the ambiguous—and fundamentally unknowable—forces and memories always at play in our move through life. In a way, the work is a mapping of the world not unlike in the way a scientific model is a mapping of the world, except the area of inquiry outlined by these paintings and sculptures is the space between ontology and emotions instead of the natural world. I sometimes think of this body of work—and most of my work—as delayed manifestations of the apparently remembered as well as the hidden failings and possibilities that only become known through the artmaking process.
Although I don't intend for the work to be constructed by the subconscious, it is apparent that an aspect of the intensity of the images and the way those images are handled—and mishandled—is out of my conscious reach. The final state of the work is usually the suggestion of an ephemeral, precarious reality. What makes this state precarious is the elusiveness of where one is, the fragility of what is hoped for, and the threat of a constant, dark, or at least unqualified, undercurrent. During the years I have been working on this exhibition, I have been influenced by reflections on the life of Robert Frost, the writings of Karl Jaspers, Jean Paul Sartre, and Hermann Ebbinghaus, Arthur Schopenhauer's essay On Suicide, toys, and the design of Chinese night lights for children's rooms. The biggest influence, however, was observing the twists and eddies of the movement of time.
SHOWN RATHER THAN TOLD (I)
September 8, 2012
During my trip to Stockholm last week I spent some time with Dick Bengtsson's paintings, which, like the paintings of fellow Swedes Carl Fredrik Hill and Hilma af Klimt, rarely come to America.
Cecilia Widenheim, curator at the Moderna Museet wrote,
In Bengtsson’s imagery no one seems to get off scot-free. He guides our gaze to the cracks in the modern project and the darker ideological sides of rational society. Like no other artist, Dick Bengtsson creates subtle short-circuits between functionalism and fascism, between the idyll of red cottages and the brown-shirted ideals of purity, between the blond 1930s Hitler Youth and abstract painting. He alludes to a kinship between authoritarian religious practices and the totalitarian inclinations of modernism. In an interview in 1983, he says, “My pictures are largely about forged reality, about the idyll that is not what it appears to be.”
As Widenheim's comments suggest, Dick Bengtsson's work points to dark currents under our private and public lives, and in particular, under the shiny constructs of the modern project, and for that alone they are worth seeing. But, what interests me most about Bengtsson (as well as about Hill and af Klint) is the way he approaches his paintings—the feeling of the work, if you will.
It is hard to tell from photographs of artworks what the artworks feel like in the flesh. In the case of af Klint, for instance, the experience of the often surprisingly large paintings is more visceral than what you might expect from ostensibly symbolic works. The dry, thin layers of paint and impatient movements of her brush make the work immediate, specific and present, which distinguishes her from other painters with related worldviews. She is not Philipp Otto Runge, for instance. But one wouldn't know it from reading most of the literature about her work. The strength of Hilma af Klint as a painter is overshadowed by the cloud of interpretation and the stories that hover above her.
If an artwork has an image in it, especially an image that does not seem cynical, the response, overwhelmingly, is about the image, the decoding of its symbolic meaning, its connotations, its failures, and so on. For the conversation to go in a different direction, the work has to establish—rather overtly—allegiance to a conceptual, or at least a non-figurative, framework.
The day I went to the Moderna Museet three other shows were establishing those allegiances: Explosion! Painting as Action, which connects painting and performance; Yoko Ono's Grapefruit, which revolves around artists' responses to one of her instructions; and He Was Wrong, which juxtaposes Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. In addition to whatever else they were doing, these three shows argued, subtly and in different ways, for the correlation between pushing the boundaries of art and intelligence, an argument that undoubtedly challenged many visitors' expectations. Yet, it was not in these exhibitions, but in front of the dragged, often ironed, and varnished surfaces of the relatively traditional paintings of Dick Bengtsson that I found myself making connections between artistic sensitivity and intellectual insight, connections that made me feel awakened and uneasy.
The intelligence in Bengtsson's work is shown rather than told by the paintings, and thus it is resistant to dissection. Intelligence might not be the right word, but whatever it is, it has more to do with embodiment of awareness than with its display. It is a quality that, unlike ideas, symbols or currency, is hard to fake and is often responsible for artworks that separate themselves from those "examples of the art of their time" which make up the bulk of museum collections and art exhibitions.
NOT A FOREST
August 5, 2012
Recently, I was asked about the image of the forest in Schneebett, and I feel it might be good to revisit the question briefly in this journal.
In Schneebett the image of the forest makes me think of the clearing and of the difficulty of getting through; maybe of a mind that hopes to get around, to find redemption. It also brings up danger, darkness, magic, imagination, and the unknown, and reminds me of the fairy tales of my childhood and of childhood itself.
But that can be said of many forests. In painting imagery is always specific. It is this forest and not another. It consists of these choices and not other ones. It is handled in this unique way in this specific painting. It is brought up in this context. And so on. This specificity matters, and it also matters that there is no forest in this work, but dabs and smears of paint on a surface of tar and feathers. They matter because they point to the defining tensions at the heart of the work. Tension between specificity and absence, between what seems to be and what is, between where I am and where I am projecting myself, between what I wish and what I fear.
AUTHENTICITY AND DRIFT
July 13, 2012
How many corrections towards fear can we make to an authentic life and
still be able to claim it is authentic?
Cynicism is heart-mud. Hiding brings forth more hiding.
Corrections towards courage invite radiance.
June 11, 2012
In Plato's The Trial and Death of Socrates, Socrates reponds to Meletus's accusation of atheism with the following words,
No one believes that, Meletus, not even you yourself. It seems to me, Athenians, that Meletus is very insolent and reckless, and that he is prosecuting me simply out of insolence, recklessness and youthful bravado.
Perhaps I am not reading the right books, but I don't come across the words insolent and insolence too often. I do in Spanish, French and Italian texts, but in English texts, which are mostly what I read now, the adjectives pretentious, arrogant, conceited, and even impudent, are easier to find than insolent. If it is in fact the case that describing someone as insolent in English is rare, the reason, as we all know, is not an equivalent rarity of insolence in the Anglo-Saxon universe, and we also know this rarity can't be a matter of restraint, since English speakers are able to recognize and feel compelled to call out the pretentiousness in a famine fighter. So what could be the reason for this lexemic mystery?
Maybe English writers, in a similar way to feeling no need to come up with a specific name for someone missing an arm, who the Spanish call un manco, don't feel compelled to label that unique chemistry of pride and contempt that insolence brings forth.
And yet, there is no better way to describe the work of some authors who write in English. Take Martin Amis, for instance, specifically in his writing about the work of that manco, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Amis, who sees virtues in a telling selection of writers that include Don DeLillo, found a significant part of Don Quixote boring and padded, and suggests that a modern author like Carlos Fuentes should edit and modernize the book, by which I think he means take some of the padding out, among other things.
Considering the comfort Amis feels in Elizabethan English, and his interest in farcical elements, I suspect he is bothered by more than Old Castilian and its manners. Undoubtedly some of it is cultural, and Amis makes this point in his writing, but I think the real rupture is that Cervantes is not a cynic and Amis is, and it is cynicism that Amis finds lacking in Don Quixote. Although there is something beautiful about Amis's writing—for example within Money—the underlying current of wit and disenchantment in his books comes across as insolent, and I think it is hard to write anything really good when pride and contempt are at the heart of the enterprise. If Amis re-reads Don Quixote more carefully and with less Shakespeare in his mind, he might find that Alonso Quijano and Cervantes have something useful to say about his disillusionment.
June 7, 2012
Before telling us how salty the bread will taste, how hard the climb of stairs will be, and how evil the company you will find in foreign lands, Dante, in his Paradiso warns the future foreigner of his greatest loss,
Thou shalt abandon everything beloved
Most tenderly, and this the arrow is
Which first the bow of banishment shoots forth.
Without—and more than without, against—empirical evidence, I like to think that arrow lands somewhere, in some landscape just waiting to be found, waiting to surprise us with the beloved again. Until that great finding, there is only the road.
The space of the foreigner is a moving train, a plane in flight, the very transition that precludes stopping.
Without a home, he [the foreigner] disseminates on the contrary the actor’s paradox: multiplying masks and “false selves” he is never completely true nor completely false, as he is able to tune in to loves and aversions the superficial antennae of a basaltic heart. A headstrong will, but unaware of itself, unconscious, distraught. The breed of the tough guys who know how to be weak.
For Kristeva, and for most, home—the beloved—is a place. But what if home is a time, and perhaps place is primarily a pointer to that time, to what was there? Maybe the fundamental problem of the arrow, and thus the foreigner, is that what we hope to find in a future place, a future home, is another time. If so, the return home will always be postponed, and the road will be ongoing.
What is the value then of trying to find what is out of reach?
Whenever I get lost in these thoughts, which is often, I find myself thinking of Harry Martinson and Albert Camus. Of course, I can also think of many others carrying their own suitcases, but Camus and Martinson seem lost and found in just the right way to make home and road more than just words or philosophical pretensions.
In different ways, Camus and Martinson bring forward a new country, a new beloved, and with it, a new anxiety and a new longing. I will call this new beloved by the unsatisfying word, roadhome. Roadhome is not their discovery, and it is not new in a real sense, but, for me, Camus and Martinson inhabit the experience best and most clearly. Roadhome is the making of a home of the journey, not because of some enlightened notion of journey as destination, but because the road reveals the stranger in oneself and once revealed it is only there, in that strangeness, that one can be true—or at lest, semi-true.
For the past year I have been making work circling around these thoughts in the hope of making something clearer out of them, and I hope to show this new work in Sweden for the inauguration of Galleri Andersson/Sandström's new space.
When I started I hoped these works would be devoid of figures. It seemed what I was after was less mediated and more elusive that what I might find through the figure in the landscape. But figures came in anyway. I couldn't pry them out. Perhaps without them, the work would have been too ghostly or too intellectual. Who knows.
The road and home have appeared in my work as images as well as concepts for some time, however, this new emphasis on their co-dependence and ultimate merge comes from the book I have been writing for a few years, The Year of the Moth.
I hope to write more about this.
A MOLE IN THE SUN
June 5, 2012
This week when Venus passes between earth and the sun, we will see the planet as a dot moving across the face of the sun. Since the next time this will occur is 2117, news bulletins are posting pictures from 2004, the most recent transit of Venus, and in seeing one of these pictures, I was reminded of Sartre's essay on Tintoretto, in particular the section called "A Mole in the Sun."
I recommend this essay even if you don't like Sartre. It is written with less flourish than his essays on Giacometti, and has many surprising insights: and let no one come up and say that he [Tintoretto] is aware of his genius, for a genius—this is ironical but true—knows his courage but not his worth. In the final part of the essay, Sartre uses Venice to frame the life of Tintoretto as he passes across the bright (and long) glow of Titian. As this transit makes clear, the arte moderna of the 1500s was a battlefield fought at an age when Venice, declining and the eve of the Plague, preferred to see itself engulfed in Glory than in the mirror. Sartre writes,
When Tintoretto passes by, people step aside: he smells of death. Exactly. But what other odor is given off by patrician festivities and bourgeois charity and the docility of the people? Pink houses with flooded cellars and crisscrossed by rats? What odor is given off by stagnant canals with their urinous cresses and by grey mussels fastened with squalid cement to the underside of quays? In the depths of a river a bubble is clinging to the mud; broken loose by the eddies formed by gondolas, it rises, spins around, glistens and bursts; everything crumbles away when the blister bursts—bourgeois nostalgia, the grandeur of the Republic, God and Italian painting.
One doesn't have to be a visionary to project our time into Sartre's writing, except our squabbles and delusions seem farcical when we consider La Biennale di Venezia, La Nona Ora, and all of that against the Venice of Titian, Giorgione, Bellini, Tintoretto, and Lotto.
THE MAN WHO WENT TO SEA
May 23, 2012
The Cable Ship
We fished up the Atlantic cable one day between the
.....Barbados and the Tortugas,
held up our lanterns
and put some rubber over the wound on its back,
latitude 15 degrees north, longitude 61 degrees west.
When we laid our ear down to the gnawed place
we could hear something humming inside the cable.
"It’s some millionaires in Montreal and St John
talking over the price of Cuban sugar, and ways to
reduce our wages," one of us said.
For a long time we stood there thinking, in a circle of
we're all patient cable fishermen,
then we let the coated cable fall back
to its place in the sea.
Winterspring, nightfall, thawing.
Boys have lit a candle in a snowball house.
For the man in the evening train that rattles past,
it is a red memory surrounded by gray time,
calling, calling, out of stark woods just waking up.
And the man who was traveling never got home,
his life stayed behind, held by that lantern and that hour.
Painting and poems by Harry Martinson, translated by Robert Bly.
May 21, 2012
Claims of breakthroughs are almost always exaggerated. Typically, these breaks are rather continuations or affirmations of everything that has come before. The relocation of point of view that a breakthrough demands is rare, and in some cases impossible. In his beautiful, if somewhat rough, notes gathered in the book On Certainty, Wittgenstein writes, "all testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life."Modernity—and seeming all its recent prefixes—has led us to expect breakthroughs, and many artists have reacted to this expectation by relying on intellectual arbitrage and sorcery of the marketplace. But don't deceive yourself and others with cynicism, pretzel-phrasing or relocation of content to where it is foreign. Try instead to understand the system, perturb it, and work in what is out of reach, all with the aim of being lucid rather than new. You might end with something new, but novelty will not become the emphasis of your work, or of your life.
May 16, 2012
In considering Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art," Richard Stamelman writes in Lost Beyond Telling that for Bishop poetry and loss are one art. Then he goes on to say, "writing reverberates with the long-echoing thunder of the lightning of disastrous change, the rumblings of the emptiness of loss continuing to resound in the fullness of language."
Art is always loss. Sometimes it looks like a black rectangle or a portrait or haystacks, but behind these appearances is what cannot be or what never was. Monet's haystacks might make for charming posters, but they are paintings of mourning, and not just for the passing light. Maybe there is a first-impression of contentment in these pictures, but that contentment is uneasy, and since the thing itself can never be recovered—or known—these works, like all art, are always in-failure.
Some might say art is more, or that it can be something else. But not if what we mean by art is great art, in the way Heidegger, and Hegel before him, defined it: "What makes art great is not only and not in the first place the high quality of what is created. Rather, art is great because it is an absolute need."Great art generates light from the fusion of what is and what isn't, from making what can't be made, patching what can't be patched. This light, in turn, can be useful as a working definition of art: when it is present, the thing is art, and when it is absent, it is not art, even if it looks like it ought to be.
May 5, 2012
The Scream (1895)
Pastel on Board, 31 × 23 in
Sold at Sotheby's
$119,922,500 on May 2, 2012
Small Oil paintings (12 styles)
Oil on Canvas, 19.7 x 19.7 in
Sold at Winn Dixie Supermarket
$9.99 on May 1, 2012
April 23, 2012
Maurice Maeterlinck wrote in his book, The Life of the Bee,
Finally, it is the spirit of the hive that fixes the hour of the great annual sacrifice to the genius of the race: the hour, that is, of the swarm; when we find a whole people, who have attained the topmost pinnacle of prosperity and power, suddenly abandoning to the generation to come their wealth and their palaces, their homes and the fruits of their labor; themselves content to encounter the hardships and perils of a new and distant country. This act, be it conscious or not, undoubtedly passes the limits of human morality. Its result will sometimes be ruin, but poverty always; and the thrice-happy city is scattered abroad in obedience to a law superior to its own happiness. Where has this law been decreed, which, as we soon shall find, is by no means as blind and inevitable as one might believe? Where, in what assembly, what council, what intellectual and moral sphere, does this spirit reside to whom all must submit, itself being vassal to an heroic duty, to an intelligence whose eyes are persistently fixed on the future?
Art could be approached with this "spirit of the hive." There is a time to do, to shelter and to maintain, then, when destiny, rut or tiredness begins to stir within us, it is time to swarm. To move on. Maybe it matters to where or maybe it doesn't.
We usually pay for this spirit in restlessness, but most art—most things—are not "the topmost pinnacle of prosperity and power," and even then it might be right to abandon what we are doing today for what we might do tomorrow, however unlikely. And when is the right time to leave behind a hard-earned pile of almost-good work? Here Maeterlinck's words are useful again,
They [the bees] will not leave at a moment of despair; or desert, with sudden and wild resolve, a home laid waste by famine, disease, or war. No, the exile has long been planned, and the favorable hour patiently awaited. Were the hive poor, had it suffered from pillage or storm, had misfortune befallen the royal family, the bees would not forsake it. They leave it only when it has attained the apogee of its prosperity; at a time when, after the arduous labors of the spring, the immense palace of wax has its 120,000 well-arranged cells overflowing with new honey, and the many-colored flour, known as "bees' bread," on which nymphs and larvae are fed. Never is the hive more beautiful than on the eve of its heroic renouncement, in its unrivaled hour of fullest abundance and joy; serene for all its apparent excitement and feverishness.
Do bees feel remorse?
Humans, after the initial euphoria, like to see success, and if the new ways are not panning out, we often run back to our old habits and tricks, or to our titles and positions. Sometimes this works (look at what happened with Charles Burchfield) but usually it doesn't. So I find it helpful to keep in mind another reminder of perseverance from Maeterlinck's little gem,
And even though the bee-keeper deposits the hive, in which he has gathered the old queen and her attendant cluster of bees, by the side of the abode they have but this moment quitted, they would seem, be the disaster never so great that shall now have befallen them, to have wholly forgotten the peace and the happy activity that once they had known there, the abundant wealth and the safety that had then been their portion; and all, one by one, and down to the last of them, will perish of hunger and cold around their unfortunate queen rather than return to the home of their birth, whose sweet odor of plenty, the fragrance, indeed, of their own past assiduous labor, reaches them even in their distress.
April 15, 2012
The late work of Edvard Munch and Pierre Bonnard is almost always surprising. Their early work is better known, but its successes are easier to understand. The loose, almost unfinished paintings of the late years, on the other hand, work against all odds. Who, for instance, would expect Self-Portrait During the Eye Disease to be as great as it is? Munch and Bonnard extract the unexpected from genre paintings to reveal the mystery, the anguish, and the beauty in the familiar. This is not easy to do; it is easier to add the unexpected than to extract it.
April 9, 2012
In my teens I used to watch out for conformity and mediocrity. I was all eyes: from that pirate-themed Sears desk in that cinderblock house in that development that looked like many others, I took notice of ways in which the big fights are abandoned, often imperceptibly, in exchange for an easier life. And as it happens when we read the books we want to read, this watchful worldview echoed in my readings of Erich Fromm, Hermann Hesse and Jean Paul Sartre.
The critical concept then was freedom. Not freedom to consume or say as I please, but freedom to make a decision apart from social conventions and expectations as well as from all previous decisions and from God. The aim of this freedom was authenticity in the definition of self.
Authenticity seemed urgent back then, and not just for me. Kids are acquainted with lies, without yet having become one. Kids know what delusion, pretension, deception and distraction sort of look like on a face, and those kids who have not been gutted will struggle to keep these vermins off.
But the young don't usually know what it is going to take to keep this struggle going. Alienation and loneliness, like ticks, are easier to handle when they are not yet fastened to the body. Looking back now at those days I see the hormonal spark of youth, and I also see how little I understood—and undoubtedly, how little I understand—of costs and trades. It is easy for a fourteen-year old to overestimate the heroics and underestimate the sorrow.
April 3, 2012
I kept an online journal (or blog or collection of notes) from August 24, 2007 to May 25, 2009. It was called Bad Time for Poetry, a name I took from a Bertolt Brecht poem. This online journal was later compiled as a book called The Blog, which you can find here.
It was right for all that to end when it did, and now it seems right to do something again for a while. Like in Bad Time for Poetry, the entries in this journal will consist of observations, notes on works and ideas, and brief essays. New entries will be published consistently, but sporadically—two might appear in one week or in one month.
I am publishing this journal for the handful of people who might be interested. I have no pretension about its importance, and since I know the clumsiness of my thoughts and of my writing, it is not necessary to send me emails on the subject.