A SUITCASE FILLED WITH CHILDREN’S DRAWINGS

She would have them start out by doing gesture drawings and warming up before some of the more formal work began in the studio.  It was an idea right out of the Bauhaus School, where she herself had studied.  This art teacher did both drawing and color assignments as well as graphic and plastic exercises.

Josef Bauml
“Drawing exercise—relaxing the hand, rhythm”
1943-44
Graphite on paper
25 x 31.2 cm
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“She believed in mixing colors
and drawing from nature”

“She taught exercises in composition
and breathing”

“She spoke of positive and negative forms
and the rhythm of geometric shapes
and the musical keyboard of color”[i]            

Hana Lustigova
“Exercise—color theory”
1943-1944
Watercolor and graphite on paper
17.2 x 25.2 cm
The Jewish Museum, Prague

Friedl Dicker was born on 30 July 1898 in Vienna, Austria.  During her youth, she and several friends studied with the artist Johann Itten at his private school in Vienna.  She later followed Itten to Weimar, Germany, where she studied at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923.  Along with Itten, she also studied with Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer and Paul Klee.  She was especially influenced by the drawing and introductory courses that had been developed by Itten.

Friedl Dicker
“Composition, Abstract Figure”
ca. 1920
Charcoal, pastel
15 1/2” x 12 1/2”
The University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria

After leaving the Bauhaus, she established workshops and ateliers in both Berlin and Vienna, focusing on architecture, interior design, textiles and bookbinding.  She also became an art educator, guiding kindergarten teachers in Vienna in the education of children. 

Dicker continued with both her own work and teaching for several years, and even produced a series of political posters in support of the Austrian Communist Party.  During the February Uprising in 1934 she was arrested and interrogated regarding her communist activities.  After her release, she moved to Prague, continued her creative activities, and met and married Pavel Brandeis on 30 April 1936.  There she continued her own studio work as well as teaching art to Jewish children who were no longer allowed to attend the public schools.

On 17 December 1942, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was deported to the Terezin concentration camp just north of Prague.  From a third-story window she continued to paint scenes of the courtyard below, and she continued to teach children in her art classes in the camp.  She brought the lessons that she had learned at the Bauhaus directly to her new young charges at Terezin.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis
“Bare Tree in Courtyard”
1943/1944
Watercolor
11 3/4” x 17 1/2”
Simon Wiesenthal Center Library and Archives,
Los Angeles, California

On 6 October 1944, Dicker-Brandeis and her students were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau where they were executed on 9 October 1944.

Just before her classes were closed, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis collected 4,387 drawings completed by her students.  She packed them all in two suitcases and hid them in one of the children’s dormitories in the Ghetto in Prague.  Since their rediscovery, these works have been featured at both the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Jewish Museum in Prague, where they are now preserved in the permanent collection.

Several years ago we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.  It was there that I first saw the drawings of the children who had been incarcerated in the concentration camps in Europe.  I immediately purchased the catalog titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”[ii] and have kept its memory close.  Later I read a new collection of Edward Hirsch’s work titled Lay Back the Darkness that contained a section titled “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944.” 

I wrote to him regarding this sequence of poems.  As it turned out, we had both seen some of this work in person, although in two very different locations:  he had seen them at the Museum in Terezin, and I had seen them in Washington, DC.  When I asked him about this, this was his response:  “I didn’t see that particular exhibition in Washington, but I’m sure it includes the same work that I saw a couple of times at the museum in Terezin.  I first discovered some of the poems and drawings in a little book called ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly.’  That was later amplified into the exhibition.”[iii]  

After reading Hirsch’s book, many of the images from the drawings came flooding back into my mind, so I have paired a selection of Edward Hirsch’s lines with some of the children’s drawings here.  I also asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Helmick, an expert on Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, for her thoughts on this important art educator.  This is a summary of what she wrote back to me: 

“The empathetic experience of artmaking was Friedl Dicker Brandeis’ gift to the young artists in the Nazi concentration camp. While many artists in the Nazi internment camp recorded the awful circumstances in which they were imprisoned, Dicker Brandeis provided aesthetic experiences for the children in her charge….By teaching them to observe and experience their visual world…she enabled them to live imaginatively in horrific conditions. The artifacts left behind were not just products of art making but windows into the soul of the makers that gave proof of meaning making and authentic engagement, just as Dicker Brandeis believed.”[iv]

Ruth Schachterova
“Composition”
1943/1944
Paper collage
10” x 14”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“A pasted collage on an office form
of a sunny evening in Terezin”[v]         

Sonja Spitzova
“Prague Theater, Guard with a Stick”
1943-1944
Collage with paper from an office ledger
7 3/4” x 8 1/4”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“This is a guard with a stick
This is a stick with a heart
This is a heart with a horseshoe
This is a girl flinging the horseshoe at a guard”[vi]            

(Unknown child artist)
“Free Art”
1943/1944
Watercolor
8” x 10 1/2”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“An unsigned still life with a jelly jar
filled with meadow flowers”[vii]                   

Vilem Eisner
1943-1944
“Forest”
Watercolor on paper
15.2 x 21.3 cm
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“Somewhere out there in the trees
far away from the barracks
childhood is still waiting for me”[viii]            

(Unknown child artist)    
“Composition”
1943/1944
Watercolor
10 1/2” x 8”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“Not even the teacher
who had studied at the Bauhaus
could draw the face of God”[ix]                     


[i] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 55.

[ii] Volavkova, Hana, ed., Haim Potok, Vaclav Havel; I Never Saw Another Butterfly; Schocken Books; New York, Neew York; 1993.

[iii] Hirsch, Edward; (From an e-mail correspondence with this writer); 26 July 2017 at 9:49AM.

[iv] Helmick, Linda, PhD; Assistant Professor of Art Education, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; (From an e-mail correspondence with this author); 24 March 2020, 10:57 am.

[v] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.

[vi] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 51.

[vii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.

[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 49.

[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 53.

A PAINTER OBSESSED BY THE COLOR BLUE

In 1993-1994 the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York organized and circulated an exhibition in honor of the American painter, Fairfield Porter.  This project drew heavily upon the museum’s own collection, which included 237 paintings and drawings from the Fairfield Porter Bequest.  The exhibition was presented at several other East Coast museums, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and traveled as far west as the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.     

Elaine de Kooning
“Fairfield Porter #1”
1954
Oil on canvas
48” x 31 7/8”
Estate of Elaine de Kooning

In writing about Porter, the art historian William C. Agee described, and helped to define, the position of this very independent artist.  “Above all, Porter should be seen in the tradition of American individualism.  In his insistence on the real and concrete nature of experience, on the distinctiveness and diversity, even the arbitrary nature, of facts, Porter proclaimed the triumph of the individual.  It was a triumph of the individual over technocracy and the state, of the singular over the general, of the real and vital over the standardized and the routine, of the natural over the artificial.”[i] 

It could also be said that Fairfield Porter sought the disciplined over the undisciplined, as both a painter and a poet.  He was difficult to categorize aesthetically and was often aligned with a varied community of other artists and writers both in and outside of the New York School.  Elaine and Willem de Kooning were both close friends and colleagues.  Others, such as John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch, Jane Freilicher, and Rackstraw Downes were within a close circle of friends and influences.

As a poet, he practiced several literary forms and structures.  These included the sonnet, the sestina, and the technique of counting syllables.  He was also an important and prolific art critic, writing for both Art News and The Nation from 1951 to 1961.  Writing in The Nation on 6 June 1959 regarding Willem de Kooning’s exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, Porter observed: 

“A painter of my acquaintance said of de Kooning, ‘He leaves a vacuum behind him.’”

“…de Kooning’s abstractions…release human significances that cannot be expressed verbally.  It is as though his painting reached a different level of consciousness than painting that refers to a theory of aesthetics, or that refers to any sort of program:  in short any painting that is extensively verbalized.  His meaning is not that the paintings have Meaning, like certain vast canvases notable for the difficulty of containing them in any given space.  Nor is their meaning that They Have Not Been Done Before.  Nor is it the romanticizing of nature, as with the West Coast abstractionists.  The vacuum they leave behind them is a vacuum in accomplishment, in significance and in genuineness.”[ii] 

Porter’s play with words, in both his criticism and his poetry, clearly comes out of an intense vision of the world around him.  Whether it is a comment on de Kooning’s paintings, or a dialogue with Kenneth Koch on sonnets and sestinas, Porter brings the very same intensity of seeing to the objects included in his own paintings:  still lives left on the breakfast table, or in the artist’s studio, or his children at play, or the family dog resting in the shadows of a summer’s day.

Fairfield Porter
“Self Portrait in the Studio”
1968
Oil on canvas
22” x 16”
Private Collection

A Painter Obsessed By Blue

“No color isolates itself like blue.  
If the lamp’s blue shadow equals the yellow
Shadow of the sky, in what way is one
Different from the other?  Was he on the verge of a discovery
When he fell into a tulip’s bottomless red? 
Who is the mysterious and difficult adversary?

If he were clever enough for the adversary
He should not have to substitute for blue,
For a blue flower radiates as only red
Does, and red is bottomless like blue.  Who loves yellow
Will certainly make in his life some discovery
Say about the color of the sky, or another one. 

That the last color is the difficult one
Proves the subtlety of the adversary. 
Will he ever make the difficult discovery
Of how to gain the confidence of blue? 
Blue is for children; so is the last yellow
Between the twigs at evening, with more poignancy than red. 

A furnace with a roar consumes the red
Silk shade of a lamp whose light is not one
Like birds’ wings or valentines or yellow,
Able to blot out the mysterious adversary
Resisted only by a certain blue
Illusively resisting all discovery.”[iii]

Fairfield Porter
“Island Farmhouse”
1969
Oil on canvas
80” x 79”
Private Collection

(Untitled)

         “In the blue still air
The spruce pollen shaken from the trees
         At the tenderest stir,
Moves in tall clouds before them
         To drift uselessly
Salting the moss and leaves underfoot,
         And settle promiscuously
On the table and chairs and cement
         In mustard ripples. 
The boys living in the next house
         Burst into giggles
At every careless observation,
         The food they cook
In vast quantities is quite inedible,
         Their faces look
As burned and tawny as the spruce flowers.”[iv]


[i] Agee, William C., et al; Fairfield Porter:  An American Painter; The Parrish Art Museum; South Hampton, New York; 1993; pp. 18-19.

[ii] Porter, Fairfield; Art in its Own Terms:  Selected Criticism 1935-1975; (edited and with an introduction by Rackstraw Downes); Taplinger Publishing Company; New York, New York; 1979; pp. 36 & 37-38.

[iii] Porter, Fairfield; The Collected Poems, with selected drawings; (edited by John Yau with an introduction by John Ashbery); Tibor de Nagy Editions/The Promise of Learnings, Inc.; New York, New York; 1985; pp. 75-76.

[iv] Porter, Fairfield; The Collected Poems, with selected drawings; (edited by John Yau with an introduction by John Ashbery); Tibor de Nagy Editions/The Promise of Learnings, Inc.; New York, New York; 1985; p. 11.

THE SHIELD OF ACHELLES

In ancient times, as these stories, tales, and histories were spoken and traded, collected and written down, it was Homer who ultimately composed the epic poem The Iliad.  In so doing, he chronicled the adventures of the Greek army, the sack of Troy and the heroic wanderings of the many participants across the seas. 

In one section especially, he described at length the great warrior Achilles as he was preparing for his battles in the Trojan Wars.  Achilles’ mother, Thetis, who had foreseen these upcoming events, commissioned the blacksmith Hêphaistos to forge a shield, with many layers and stories illuminated on its face.  He, Achilles, would have a choice of living a long life in peace and relative obscurity, or going into battle, with imminent death awaiting, but having his name become legendary.  We all know which of these paths he took.

It was Homer’s description of this amazing shield, going into great detail on all levels, which we accept today as the first and most important example of the ekphrastic tradition. In reading The Iliad over the years since that time, many artists and poets have tried to explicate these details, in both analytical and romantic ways.

“Then, running round the shield-rim, triple-ply,
he pictured all the might of the Ocean stream.”[i]

Alexander Pope
“Diagram for Achilles’ Shield” (MS 4808)
1712-1724
Pen and ink on paper
The British Library, London

In the eighteenth century Alexander Pope set out on a personal project to create a modern translation of Homer’s Iliad.  It stretched out over a twelve-year period, and he supported himself during this time by selling subscriptions to this as a series.  Along with this writing project, he attempted to reconstruct the design of Achilles’ shield, paying close attention to Homer’s descriptions.  The drawings and diagrams that he created are now in the manuscript collection of the British Library.  They give an excellent glimpse into this fictional work of art, and the Ocean stream that runs around its shield-rim.

Homer continues to describe the richness and imagination of the decoration for Achilles’ shield.  In the lines below he lays out the scheme for this project, including several realms and worlds in which the story takes place. 

                                                               “Durable
fine bronze and tin he threw into the blaze
with silver and with honorable gold,
then mounted a big anvil in his block
and in his right hand took a powerful hammer,
managing with his tongs in his left hand.” 

“His first job was a shield, a broad one, thick,
well-fashioned everywhere.  A shining rim
he gave it, triple-ply, and hung from this
a silver shoulder strap.  Five welded layers
composed the body of the shield.  The maker
used all his art adorning this expanse. 
He pictured on it earth, heaven, and sea,
unwearied sun, moon waxing, and the stars
that heaven bears for garland:  Plêiades,
Hyades, Orion in his might,
the Great Bear, too, that some have called the Wain,
pivoting there, attentive to Orion,
and unbathed ever in the Ocean stream.”[ii]  

Later in history, the artisan John Flaxman was commissioned by the firm of Rundell, Brigge & Rundell in London to take Homer’s description of this shield, using the original Greek text and Alexander Pope’s translation, and using his own illustrations to reconstruct this great work of art.  It includes all of the realms and landscapes as they are described, as well as the people and all of the characters as they interact, in both war and peace.  To our modern eye, and mind, this shield may have been beautiful, however, it also would have been huge, impossible for a single warrior to wield. 

John Flaxman (Commissioned by Philip Rundell)
“Shield of Achilles”
1821
Silver gilt
90.5 x 90.5 x 18.0 cm
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace,
United Kingdom

Coming closer to our own time, both W. H. Auden and Cy Twombly bring this imagery up to date.  A contemporary rendering of this story by Auden alternates shorter and longer lines in its retelling.  The following selected stanzas show Achilles’ mother, Thetis, looking over the shoulder of the blacksmith Hêphaistos during the process of the making of the shield.  She seems to be checking on its progress, with special attention to the inclusion of the many details that will go into this narrative. 

Auden however, sets a darker tone than the purely heroic one, including this description:  “An artificial wilderness and a sky like lead.”  Coming full circle, so to speak, the contemporary artist Cy Twombly re-visits this theme with a very energetic and abstract depiction of the shield.  Insane scribblings perhaps, yet they are lyrical and beautiful, graphic expressions with the pure kinetic energy that enlivens Achilles’ shield. 

The Shield of Achilles

“She looked over his shoulder
         For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-groomed cities
         And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
         His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
         And a sky like lead.” 

“She looked over his shoulder
         For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
         Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
         Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
         Quite another scene.” 

Cy Twombly
“Fifty Days at Iliam:  Shield of Achilles”
1978
Oil, crayon and graphite on canvas
75 1/2” x 67”
Philadelphia Museum of Art,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“She looked over his shoulder
         For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
         Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
         But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
         But a weed-choked field.” 
“The thin-lipped armorer,
         Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
         Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
         To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
         Who would not live long.”[iii]


[i] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; p. 454, lines 607-608.

[ii] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; pp. 450-451, lines 479-497

[iii] Auden, W. H.; Collected Poems; Modern Library; New York, New York; 2007; pp. 594-596.

MUSA MCKIM AND RAYMOND CARVER: MODERN DETAILS

Somehow in the course of events we have been led to believe that the ‘modern’ has come to mean only formalist abstraction and minimalism.  A smaller and smaller world defined by a very tight description.  There are however, several important modern writers and artists who have paid special attention to the details of modern life, seeing in them the larger world and how these details might speak to us. 

SUNDAY NIGHT
“Make use of the things around you. 
This light rain
Outside the window, for one. 
This cigarette between my fingers,
These feet on the couch. 
The faint sound of rock-and-roll,
The red Ferrari in my head. 
The woman bumping
Drunkenly around the kitchen . . .
Put it all in,
Make use.”[i]

“Don’t forget when the phone was off the hook
all day, every day.”[ii]   

“When, at 12:24, I look at the clock that isn’t running and it tells
the same time as the clock that is”[iii]   

As we read the above observations, both Musa McKim and Raymond Carver look directly at the world surrounding us:  a telephone lying off its hook, a broken alarm clock, a bag of sugar, or just the sun creating a glare on a sheet of white paper.  Many of the same things that would catch the eye of an artist.  The abstract form and shape of a grand piano, or the abstracted movement of a bird in space.  All are examples of minimal imagery with maximum power that both poets and painters would employ.

Brancusi’s sculpture, straight out of a folk tradition, but unrecognzable to the Parisian elite, later became the sophisticated form that synthesized beauty, abstraction and content.  There is the catch:  abstraction and content.  At first no one saw Brancusi’s pieces as birds, neither in space nor in flight.  Today, however, they have become a symbol of just that. 

Constantin Brancusi
“Bird in Space”
1928
Bronze
54” x 8 ½” x 6 ½”
Collection:  Museum of Modern Art, New York

Not unlike the sculpture of Brancusi, the orchestral pieces of Igor Stravinsky synthesized classical music with jazz, folk and even the primal. Traditional painting had also gone through a similar synthesis of realism, cubism and pure plastic painting. 

Arnold Newman
“Igor Stravinsky, New York City”
1946
Black & White Photograph
12 1/16” x 22 5/16”
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

In the 1950’s and 60’s many young art students were taught by American abstract artists.  Process and abstraction formed the content of most of the work at that time.  But later, outside of academia, these artists were also confronted by the dilemma of what to do now?  They were well versed in process, but struggled to find content.  One artist however, set the  most impressive example.  Philip Guston at his Marlborough show in 1970  envisioned the end of one aspect of this process, and opened the gates and possibilities to new forms of imagery.  Making use of the things around him. 

By looking at certain details occurring in the world he single handedly opened the doors for himself, for poets, and later artists to come.  These included Clarke Coolidge, Musa McKim, Raymond Carver, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg and more.

“I thought I would never write anything down again.  Then I put on my cold wristwatch.”[iv] 

Philip Guston in collaboration with Musa McKim
“I thought I would never write anything down again.”
(UNDATED)
Pen & ink drawing on paper
19” x 24”
The Estate of Musa Guston

In the mid 1960’s Robert Moskowitz produced a series of small paintings of a simple corner of a room.  Quiet, minimal, very abstract and infused with a new sense of content and space.  Where the simplest shape or form of a thing could clearly speak. 

He would later take this process, including both personal and universal images, and juxtapose them in subtle but provacotive ways.  A corner of the Flatiron Building, or the tops of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Towers, for example.  A simplified assortment of visual images, not unlike the sparse and provacotive language used by Raymond Carver and Musa McKim.

Robert Moskowitz
“Untitled (Empire State)”
1980 
Graphite and pastel on paper
106” x 31 1/4”
Collection:  Mr. and Mrs. Robert K. Hoffman,
Dallas, Texas

“Talking about her brother Morris, Tess said: 
‘The night always catches him.  He never
believes it’s coming.’”[v]     

“When on TV I see my sister in a bit part in an old movie”[vi]   

“Three men and a woman in wet suits.  The door to their motel room is open and they are watching TV.”[vii]     

“And below in the street they are rattling the Coca-Cola bottles”[viii] 

Robert Moskowitz
“Painting (For Duke Ellington)”
1977
Oil on canvas
90” x 75”
Collection of Mary and Jim Parton, Great Falls, Virginia

His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes
“Duke Ellington riding in the back of his limo, somewhere
in Indiana.  He is reading by lamplight.  Billy Strayhorn
is with him, but asleep.  The tires hiss on the pavement. 
The Duke goes on reading and turning the pages.”[ix]


[i] Carver, Raymond; “Sunday Night,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 53.

[ii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.

[iii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.

[iv] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 121.

[v] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 64.

[vi] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.

[vii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 65.

[viii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.

[ix] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.

JOYCE, WHAT KIND OF NAME IS THAT?

Judy Linn
“Patti Smith’s Window, 23rd Street”
(Copyright) 1971
B&W Photograph
Collection of the artist

“conversation with the kid”

“who’s the guy on the glass?
that’s joyce.
joyce, that’s a girl’s name.
that’s a name.
well, what’s with him?
he watches over me.
he only got one eye.
a guy like him that’s all he needs.”[i]

The poems of Patti Smith are simultaneously cutting and fanciful, getting at a certain truth even as they weave myths, fantasies and contemporary literature together.  There are several statements made by Smith that remind me of another artist’s work, the contemporary painter Robert Barnes.  Whether in a poem by Smith or a painting by Barnes, we definitely witness a series of visual ambiguities and associative shifts taking place.

“a coronet of stars
ornament of the tame
no one to bow to
to vow to
to blame
how did i die?
i tried to walk thru light
with tangled hair
not yet prepared
for the valley of combat.”[ii]   

Judy Linn
“Patti Smith as Bob Dylan”
(Copyright) 1971
B&W Photograph
Collection of the artist

“dog dream”

“have you seen
dylan’s dog
it got wings
it can fly
if you speak
of it to him
it’s the only
time Dylan
can’t look you in the eye”

“have you seen
dylan’s dog
it got wings
it can fly
when it lands
like a clown
he’s the only
thing allowed
to look Dylan in the eye”[iii]

They both, Patti Smith and Robert Barnes, have their idols and inspirations, an assortment of creative and eccentric characters.  For Barnes these include:  James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Craven, Jeremy Bentham, and Tristan Tzara.  And Smith:  again James Joyce, William S. Burrows, Jean Genet, Andre Breton, Arthur Rimbaud, and Bob Dylan.  Magicians and tricksters they are, in both words and images.  Smith masquerading as Dylan, and Barnes often using the analogy of the slight of hand embodied in the old time ‘table cloth’ trick!

“dishes crank on my nerves”[iv] 

Robert Barnes
“Regency Room”
1981
Pastel on Masonite
23 7/8” x 23 7/8”
Larry and Evelyn Aronson, Chicago, Illinois

During the fall of 2015 the Indiana University Art Museum held a retrospective of Robert Barnes’ work, “Grand Illusions:  Late Works 1985-2015.”   This was such a powerful show, and it was the second such exhibition of his work that I have seen in person.  In his remarks at the opening Barnes mentioned several influential books including:  “The Golden Bough” by James George Frazer, “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves, and “Ulysses” by James Joyce.  Using these examples, he noted how a subject unfolds as it is invented in his paintings.  A narrative transformation of sorts takes place.[v] 

“Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey” was the earlier exhibition organized by the Madison Art Center in Wisconsin, which travelled to the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, and several other national locations.  The main essay for this catalogue was written by the Chicago critic and curator Dennis Adrian, and set about describing and defining many of the issues and ideas that flow through this work.

“The complex, shifting, and many-layered sense of a larger reality has important correspondences in Barmes’s (sic) various literary and artistic enthusiasms.  Among the most significant of these is his love and regard for the writing of James Joyce.  In fact, Barnes’ method and effects are like the continuous unreeling present in Joyce’s Ulysses, where the events of Leopold Bloom’s day are experienced by both him and the reader as shifting and overlapping elements of feeling, observation, memory, fantasy, imagination, conflation of past and present…all of which are rooted in the structure, incidents, and characters of Homer’s Odyssey.[vi]  

“In both Joyce and Barnes, the ‘subject,’ so to speak, is created and even invented freshly for us, but it also contains, through parallels of structure, allusion, or direct reference, a connection with other realms of experience, ‘actual,’ artistic, or both….The elements in Barnes’ paintings which feel like the record or recollections of some specific actuality help to create a forceful presence for his abstract inventions and the curious forms which we seem to recognize but cannot identify, that is, the things which we know about perceptually but cannot name.”[vii]   

Robert Barnes
“James Joyce”
1959
Oil on canvas
96 1/4” x 72”
Private Collection, New York

More recently, I wrote to Robert Barnes to ask him about his work and especially his interest in James Joyce.  He graciously responded:   

“When I attended the University of Chicago in the fifties I was fortunate to have as a friend the poet Paul Carroll who wanted to be James Joyce!  We had as a drinking companion an Irishman who was then the answerman for the now defunct Chicago Daily News!  He was at one time an actor at the Abbey Theatre in the old country!  If we bought him drinks he would recite complete Irish plays (all the parts)!”

“At one time he undertook the reading of Ulysses!  He could do the plays verbatim but read Joyce from a book!  He claimed it had to be read with an Irish accent and I believe he was right!  It took him several evenings and lots of booze but was well worth it and gave me a life long love of things Joycean!”

Nancy Morgan Barnes
“Portrait of Bob (in front of his painting Molinard-Grasse)”
2000
Oil on panel
Indiana University Art Museum,
Bloomington, Indiana

“I have been fortunate in to have encountered inspiring people at the right time (it seems magical)!  Even without an Irish accent I think it a good idea to read Ulysses aloud or at least part of it….it is a life changing experience!”[viii]

Racing through a day in Dublin, in a stream of consciousness, Ulysses proceeds with abandon to its conclusion.  Its characters and stories often parallel the paintings of Robert Barnes.  Not only in his painting of Joyce, but in many other subjects, Barnes has created a cast of invented characters and self-portrait equivalents that exist within the spatial logic of both painting and poetry.

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, the Joyce family often used a local Dublin painter for family portraits.  This task went to Patrick Tuohy, who required James Joyce to sit daily for almost a month.  With tensions building between the artist and the writer as the work went on, Joyce became increasingly irritable, and it has been noted:  “…he was impatient with the artist’s pretensions:  ‘Never mind my soul.  Just be sure you have my tie right.’”[ix]

Patrick Tuohy
“James Joyce in Paris”
1924
Oil on canvas
24” x 19 3/4”
State University of New York, Buffalo, New York

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon.
In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”[x]   


[i] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 13.

[ii] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 163.

[iii] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; pp. 22-23.

[iv] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 53.

[v] A discussion between Robert Barnes and Michael Brooks that took place during the opening ceremonies of the “Robert Barnes:  Grand Illusions, Late Works 1985-2015” exhibition at the Indiana University Museum of Art, Bloomington, Indiana.  From my notes taken during that program, 25 September 2015. 

[vi] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10. 

[vii] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10. 

[viii] Barnes, Robert; from an e-mail correspondence with this writer on 24 March 2020, at 11:53 am.

[ix] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, and Toronto; 1997; p. xxviii.

[x] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. x.

THE PHENOMONOLOGY OF SUNFLOWERS

“I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen pictures of ‘Sunflowers,’ a decoration in which the raw or broken chrome yellows will blaze forth from backgrounds—blue, from the palest malachite green to royal blue, framed in thin strips painted orange lead.”

“Effects like those of stained-glass windows in a Gothic church.”[i]

sun
Vincent van Gogh
“Sunflowers”
(Two pages from the Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise Sketchbook)
1890
Pencil on paper
13.4 cm x 8.5 cm each page
Vincent van Gogh Foundation,
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

There are certain threads running throughout history, both plastic and poetic, which show us how ideas grow and develop.  One artist will create an image or composition that will be picked up by another artist working at a later date, as if in answer to the first. These ideas and images will add to and expand upon the original.  One important example of this can be found in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and letters, where several times he mentions the debt that he owes to the paintings of Adolphe Monticelli.  In fact a total of 57 of Vincent’s letters mention Monticelli, and his series of sunflower paintings illustrate this point.

sun1
Adolphe Monticelli
“Vase with Flowers”
1875Oil on panel
51 cm x 39 cm
Vincent van Gogh Foundation,
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

I remember that the contemporary painter Knox Martin, an important faculty member at both the Art Students League and Yale University School of Art, would always mention this, every chance he had.[ii]  Van Gogh saw himself as the ‘spiritual heir’ to Monticelli, as later Antonin Artaud[iii] saw himself as the heir to van Gogh.  Others following in this line have included the philosopher Gaston Bachelard[iv] and the rock and roll idol Jim Morrison!

It is clear that van Gogh was using history, and references to certain artists such as Gauguin, Delacroix, and Millet, as his guideposts. And especially Monticelli:

“But I myself—I tell you frankly—am returning more to what I was looking for before I came to Paris.  I do not know if anyone before me has talked about suggestive color, but Delacroix and Monticelli, without talking about it, did it.”[v]

“Now listen, for myself I am sure that I am continuing his work here, as if I were his son or brother.”[vi]

It often seems to me that van Gogh’s emphasis on observing those everyday objects surrounding him was a kind of searching, not just for a subject, but also for a larger meaning:  the soul of a flower, perhaps, which would establish him within an aesthetic family that includes Adolphe Monticelli and William Blake, as well as more modern heirs such as Allen Ginsberg, Jim Dine and even Edwin Dickinson.

A parallel occurrence happens within the literary tradition, especially when we consider the effect that Blake has had on both painters and poets.  This includes of course, Allen Ginsberg.  In his biography on Ginsberg, the author Barry Miles describes one defining moment for that writer:

“The summer heat was on.  Allen lay on his bed by the open window, reading William Blake.  The book was open to the poem ‘Ah!  Sunflower,’ from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. . . . when he heard a deep, ancient voice, reading the poem aloud.  He immediately knew, without thinking, that it was the voice of Blake himself, coming to him across the vault of time.  The voice was prophetic, tender.  It didn’t seem to be coming from his head; in fact, it seemed to be in the room, but no one was there.  He described it:  ‘The peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son.’”[vii]

sun2
William Blake.
“Ah, Sunflower, Copy AA” (From the Songs of Innocence and Experience)
1794
Relief etching, with pen & watercolour touched with gold
14 cm x 9.4 cm
The Fitzwilliam Museum,
Cambridge, United Kingdom

“Ah, Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go!”[viii]

sun3
Vincent van Gogh
“Sunflowers”
1888
Oil on canvas
92.1 cm x 73 cm
The Courtauld Fund
National Gallery, London

After that experience, it didn’t take long for Allen Ginsberg to discover his true voice as a poet, calling forth the legacy of a previous generation and adding new imagery to it.  He collected these new poems in the book Howl, which included an introduction by another New Jersey poet, William Carlos Williams.  It was Williams who observed:  “Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist. . . . Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels.  This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the intimate details of his poem.  He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt.  He contains it.  Claims it as his own. . . .”[ix]

sun4
Jim Dine
“Sun on the Palouse”
2004
Charcoal, watercolor, pastel and spray-paint on paper
47 1/2” x 61 1/2”
The Wildenstein Collection,
New York, New York

SUNFLOWER SUTRA

“I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry.

Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery.

The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily.

Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—

—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem

and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past—

and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye—

corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb,

leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,

Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then!”

sun5
Edwin Dickinson,
“Sunflower”
1941
Oil on canvas
14” x 20”
Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Arthur E. Kahn, New York

“The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives,

all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuberance of artificial worse-than-dirt—industrial—modern—all that civilization spotting your crazy golden crown—

and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos—all these

entangled in your mummied roots—and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form!

A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!

How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul?”

sun6
Vincent van Gogh
“Sunflowers”
1887
Oil on canvas
43.2 cm x 61 cm
The Rogers Fund
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?

You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!

And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!

So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,

and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,

—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.”[x]

 


[i] Van Gogh, Vincent; “Letter 19 to Emile Bernard, August 1888” The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; New York Graphic Society; Greenwich, Connecticut; 1959; vol. 3, p. 511.

[ii] Knox Martin served as one of the faculty members at the Yale University Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, Connecticut during the summer of 1967.  His lectures, field trips and critiques were filled with references to these artists and more during that time.

[iii] de la Faille, J. B.; The Works of Vincent van Gogh:  His Paintings and Drawings; Reynal & Company in association with William Morrow & Company; Amsterdam and New York; 1970; pp. 29-30.

[iv] de la Faille, J. B.; The Works of Vincent van Gogh:  His Paintings and Drawings; Reynal & Company in association with William Morrow & Company; Amsterdam and New York; 1970; pp. 34-35.

[v] Van Gogh, Vincent; The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; New York Graphic Society; Greenwich, Connecticut; 1959; vol. 3, p. 44.

[vi] Van Gogh, Vincent; The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; New York Graphic Society; Greenwich, Connecticut; 1959; vol. 3 p. 445.

[vii] Miles, Barry; Ginsberg:  A Biography; Simon and Schuster; New York, London and Toronto; 1989; p. 99.

[viii] Blake, William; Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience; Walton Street Press; Great Britain; 1794 & 2016; p. 38.

[ix] Ginsberg, Allen; Howl; (With an introduction by William Carlos Williams); City Lights Books; San Francisco. California; 1956; pp. 7-8.

[x] Ginsberg, Allen; Howl; (With an introduction by William Carlos Williams); City Lights Books; San Francisco. California; 1956; pp. 28-30.

MONDRIAN DANCING

“The geometries in the paintings—the center line and other divisions—are the main fascinators…. Working with wholes and parts has always been important…. It is important that on each side of the middle line there is a good, solid form. Where divisions become more complex, it is a matter of making certain that each section has individual solidarity as well as a working contribution to the wholeness of the picture.”[i]

mondrian
Piet Mondrian
“Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow”
1937-1942
Oil on canvas
23 3/4” x 21 7/8”
The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

 

“But let us note that art—even on an abstract level—has never been confined to ‘idea’; art has always been the ‘realized’ expression of equilibrium.”[ii]

The importance of the inter-relationships between the whole and its parts, the expression of equilibrium, and the underlying architecture of any work of art have always been important elements in the making of a painting.  The statements above illustrate these concerns from two very different artists:  the first one from Susan Rothenberg and the second from Piet Mondrian.

Even though a painting by Susan Rothenberg may seem to have nothing in common with one by Mondrian, in the middle 1980’s Rothenberg paid him a tribute with a series of new paintings.  Younger artists of that era, associated with the New Image and Bad Painting exhibitions, seemed to rediscover certain forms of imagery and gesture, which reinvigorated painting after it had recently been declared dead.  The meaningful gesture and a renewed sense of the plastic possibilities of painting energized this new work.

With his arrival in New York City in 1940, Mondrian’s work began to change and respond to his new environment.  The Neo-Plastic aesthetic became a trans-Atlantic issue for a larger artistic community.  His direct influence on younger artists, especially in the United States, included Harry Holtzman, Charmion von Wiegand, Fritz Glarner and Ilya Bolotowsky.

mondrian2
Charmion von Wiegand
“Untitled”
1946
Opaque watercolor and graphite on paper on board
22” x 18”
Whitney Museum of Art, New York

 

During this time period Mondrian’s work had shifted from works he had brought with him when he emigrated from Europe into a new phase of New York paintings.  Even Lee Krasner acknowledged his influence and importance for American artists.  Mary Gabriel writes of this several times in her book Ninth Street Women, especially mentioning Krasner talking about meeting Mondrian in his studio, and two of his vices:

“Mondrian embodied restraint—physical and spiritual—but he had two secret vices:  coffee (he hid his pot so this weakness wouldn’t be discovered) and, inconceivably, dancing.  He had a Victrola and a stack of Blue Note jazz records to which he danced barefoot in his studio.  Though he had taken lessons in Paris to learn the fox-trot and the tango, he preferred improvisation.  One dance partner called him ‘terrifying.’”[iii]

mondrian3
Susan Rothenberg
“Mondrian Dancing”
1984-1985
Oil on canvas
78” x 91”
The Saint Louis Museum of Art,
Saint Louis, Missouri

 

In another literary vein, when the poet Charles Wright visited Butler University in Indianapolis as part of its Visiting Writers Series on 29 March 2005, he made reference to a variety of artists, from Vasari and Michelangelo to Morandi and Mondrian, with Milton Avery and Wolf Kahn in between.  Meditations on the shapes and specific colors in these paintings, Wright wove individual descriptions and imaginings together into a lyrical whole and made a point of referring to specific Mondrian paintings.  Included below are two of his pieces, along with the paintings to which they refer.

SUMMER STORM

“As Mondrian knew,
Art is an image of an image of an image,
More vacant, more transparent
With each repeat and slough:
one skin, two skins, it comes clear,
An old idea not that old.”

“Two rectangles, red and grey, from 1935,
Distant thunder like a distant thunder—
Howitzer shells, large
drop-offs into drumbeat and roll.
And there’s that maple again,
Head like an African Ice Age queen, full-leafed and lipped.

Behind her, like clear weather,

Mondrian’s window gives out
onto ontology,
A dab of red, a dab of grey, white interstices.
You can’t see the same thing twice,
As Mondrian knew.”[iv]

mondrian4
Piet Mondrian
“Composition (No. 1) Gray-Red”
1935
Oil on canvas
22 5/8” x 21 7/8”
The Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago

SITTING AT DUSK IN THE BACK YARD AFTER THE MONDRIAN RETROSPECTIVE

“Form imposes, structure allows—
the slow destruction of form
So as to bring it back resheveled, reorganized,
Is the hard heart of the enterprise.
Under its camouflage,
The light, relentless shill and cross-dresser, pools and deals.
Inside its short skin, the darkness burns.

Mondrian thought the destructive element in art
Much too neglected.
Landscape, of course, pursues it savagely.
And that’s what he meant:
You can’t reconstruct without the destruction being built in;
There is no essence unless
nothing has been left out.

Destruction takes place so order might exist.
Simple enough.
Destruction takes place at the point of maximum awareness.
Orate sine intermissione, St. Paul instructs.
Pray uninterruptedly.
The gods and their names have disappeared.
Only the clouds remain.

Meanwhile, the swallows wheel, the bat wheels, the grackles
begin their business.
It’s August.
The countryside
Gathers itself for sacrifice, its slow
fadeout along the invisible,
Leaving the land its architecture of withdrawal,
Black lines and white spaces, an emptiness primed with reds and blues.”[v]

mondrian5
Piet Mondrian
“Composition with Red and Blue”
1933
Oil on canvas
16 1/4” 13 1/8”
The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

It was as if Mondrian had found his home.  The new environment and the company of artists and the hustle suited him to a tee.  Even though he sometimes isolated himself in order to work, he also explored and enjoyed this new vibrancy.  However, his death in 1944 left a void in all of this.  Another section of Ninth Street Women again mentions Lee Krasner’s memories of this time:

“Amid the unrelenting reports of death in the world, three in particular shook Lee.  Mondrian had died in late January 1944.  The sadness surrounding his passing was not just over the loss of a great artist, it was also over the circumstances of his death.  Mondrian had stayed up until four a.m. after an opening and had subsequently become ill.  Though bedridden for several days, in his humility he hadn’t wanted to bother anyone, and so he had remained alone in his stark white apartment with its myriad right angles until friends finally discovered he was sick and took him to the hospital.  It was too late.  He died five days later of pulmonary pneumonia.  Mondrian had had only one solo show during his lifetime, and that was in New York, where he said he had spent the happiest years of his life—because of the music.”[vi]

mondrian6
Susan Rothenberg
“A Golden Moment”
1985
Oil on canvas
54” x 48”
Collection of Eli and Edythe L. Broad,
Los Angeles, California

 

A Golden Moment:  Mondrian sitting at a table/piano, about to play some jazz.  On this keyboard/table top, red and blue squares appear surrounded by white, while in the background a much larger passage of yellow covers part of the floor.  This is all very loose, very gestural, and supposedly the very opposite surface of a Mondrian painting.  Yet, when we have seen unfinished Mondrian paintings in both New York and the Netherlands, colored tapes appear, temporarily attached to the surface of the painting, even with some stripes painted out.  All lines and movements:  this is Mondrian, dancing with his paintings.

mondrian7
Piet Mondrian
“Composition with Double Lines and Yellow (unfinished)”
1934
Oil and charcoal on canvas
21 7/8” x 21 7/16”
Deutsche Bank Collection,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

“Having loved the surface for a long time, then one searches for something more.  And yet this is in the surface itself.  Looking through it one sees the inner.”[vii]

 


[i] Marshall, Richard; New Image Painting; Whitney Museum of American Art; New York, New York; 1978; p. 56.

[ii] Blotkamp, Carel; Mondrian:  The Art of Destruction; Harry N. Abrams; New York, New York; 1994; p. 9.

[iii] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women:  Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler:  Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. 81. 

[iv] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 61.

[v] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; pp. 122-123.

[vi] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women:  Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler:  Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. xx. 

[vii] Cooper, Harry, and Ron Spronk; Mondrian:  The Transatlantic Paintings; Harvard University Art Museums; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2001; p. 24.

BUTTERFLIES IN THE OUTFIELD

Dedicated to the memories of:  William Weber (1947-1968) and Dr. Timothy Wiles (1946-2003).

butter
Grant Wood
“Spring in Town”
1941
Oil on canvas
26” x 24”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

I had known of the poet Elizabeth “Coco” Weber for many years and had the chance to work directly with her in 1999-2000 at the Indianapolis Art Center in conjunction with the exhibition “The Art of Combat:  Artists and the Viet Nam War, Then & Now.”  It was through this work that I also met and became friends with other artists, writers and educators such as Arturo Alonzo Sandaval, Michael Aschenbrenner, W. D. Earhardt, Timothy Wiles, and Yusef Kommunyaka.

Elizabeth Weber had been in contact with many other writers and veterans in order to reconstruct and clarify the life and memory of her brother Bill, who had been the Radio Operator for Charlie Company and had been killed by a sniper’s bullet on 12 February 1968 at My Lai 3.  His death was not the only reason, but it was one of the reasons that triggered his mates and their actions later on 16 March 1968 at My Lai 5.

Elizabeth Weber has spent many years since then writing about her brother Bill, their shared childhood experiences, and the deep loss to her family following his death.  This, coupled with imagery stretching from Minnesota to Kansas to Indiana, sets the stage for times and places that become clear, fade, and become clear again.

As an artist, I was reminded of the great American Regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood.  Landscapes where sheets hung on a line drying, where flags flapped in the breeze, and preachers were busy baptizing young people or burying old soldiers as they returned home one final time.

 

butter2
John Steuart Curry
“Baptism in Kansas”
1928
Oil on canvas
40 1/4” x 50 1/4”
Whitney Museum of American Art
New York, New York

Elizabeth Weber opens the second section of her poem “Kansas, 1920” with the lines:  “My father says hell glories on this earth.  Nothing more.  Salvation is what big men talk about when they want something, like a church, or my brother.”

She reminded me later in a conversation that she totally understood the imagery that I had conjured up regarding these landscapes, however, she had in fact seen an installation by the contemporary artist Ann Hamilton at the Art Institute of Chicago.  An installation that I had also seen, of sheets mounted and stretched on tracks which circulated through the galleries of the museum, creating their own breeze, and weaving throughout the galleries.  I totally understood.  And that was exactly how she came upon the idea for the poem, Kansas, 1920.

 

butter3
Ann Hamilton
“Volumen”
Installation and documentation,
variable sizes and media included
in “About Place: Recent Art of the Americas” at
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, 1995.

 

In The Outfield 

in memory of William Weber (1947-1968)

1
Across the street
one light is left in a restaurant.  A girl
rubs the counter so mold
won’t grow.  I watch her
like a sniper.  She cleans
everything once
and her heart is like mine.
One shot and she would fall
like the cloth she holds.
The light goes out—no light,
no girl, no heart.

2
I don’t know how
it was that day.
Perhaps the sniper sat
while the world throbbed into place.
Perhaps, brother,
butterflies swarmed in your eyes.
The sniper went to the heart:
He pulled the trigger.
It was all he could do.
The thin beat you heard
in your ears was just that—
blood that stops in a second
and turns black in the air.

3
Dear Bill, the monarchs swarmed
without you this September.
Goldenrods blazed.
All I could do was stand
in the outfield and watch them
explode in the sky.[i]

 

butter4
John Steuart Curry
“The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne”
1928-1940
Oil on canvas
38 1/4” x 52 1/4”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

 

Kansas, 1920
“I am a girl who stands among sheets
drying one by one in Kansas daylight.
They starch to a white beyond the simple roll
of these hills to dazzle my eyes.
In sheets like these they wrapped my brother
who yielded his body in a killing
called war, as if that made it more right.
The hole they blew in his side explodes in my head.
It stays now, a place for the day to escape to.
In her grief my mother gave up his clothing,
his books and planes he modeled from balsa.
She gave them up to the sky in a black furl
as if the heat of that burning
could wipe out the hurt she felt.
All that’s left is a shirt I stole and keep
balled in my dresser away from my mother’s hands.
My sister gives herself to every man she can
as if that could fill the hollow spot my brother left.
She says she wants to take in all their anguish
and looks in their eyes for a matching emptiness
where she can place herself, but finds instead an ache
like a fist.

My father says hell glories on this earth.
Nothing more.  Salvation is what big men talk about
when they want something, like a church
or my brother.  Every night he carves
rounds of cottonwood into the smooth moons of napkin holders.
I call them cries without faces.
I stand here by these starching sheets and know wisdom
waits in the field with the corn.
Grow, says the sun, and it grows.
Bend, says the rain, and it bends.
Die, says the cold, and it dies.
As I bend to the weight of these sheets,
I watch them die a little each day with the wash
but come glorious in the sun,
bright flags against an empty Kansas prairie.”[ii]

 


[i] Weber, Elizabeth; Small Mercies; Owl Creek Press; Missoula, Montana; 1983; pp. 17-18.

[ii] Weber, Elizabeth; “Kansas, 1920,” The Burning House; Main Street Rag; Charlotte, North Carolina; 2005; p. 9.

STILL LIFE WITH A BRIDLE

“The Orpheus of the still life.  He was surrounded by an aura of mystery, and legends circulated about what took place in his atelier, tales about supernatural forces he brought into his work.  Probably Torrentius thought a certain dose of charlatanism did not harm art (differing here from his modest guild brothers of the Fraternity of Saint Luke), but on the contrary helped it.  For example, he used to say he did not in fact paint but only placed paints on the floor next to his canvases; under the influence of musical sounds they arranged themselves in colourful harmonies.  But is not art, every art, a kind of alchemical transmutation?  From pigments dissolved in oil arise flowers, towns, bays of the ocean and views of paradise truer than the real ones.”[i]

 

bridle
Jan van de Velde
“Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius”
1628
Engraving
21.6 cm x 16.6 cm
Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It is an entire book written as an ekphrastic exercise.  The author, Zbigniew Herbert, takes various elements from the Golden Age of Dutch painting and life and weaves a series of stories and essays around these themes.  In this particular example, an art historian is doing research on a surprising painting that he has just encountered in a museum, by an artist he has never heard of.  The “Still Life with a Bridle” by Johannes van der Beeck, also know as Torrentius, is equally as enigmatic as its maker.  It clearly shows the artist’s hand at rendering a variety of materials and subjects:  reading from right to left across the center of the painting we have a ceramic jug, a glass cruet, and a pewter pitcher, clearly illustrating the artist’s ability to handle a variety of surfaces in both light and shadow.

 

bridle-2
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
(DETAIL)

Herbert, even in the description of this still life, finds an underlying structure forming both horizontals and verticals, as well as hidden imagery, a mysterious note placed at the bottom of the composition and then the dark, almost hidden bridle directly above at the top.  And, as an historian, he warns himself of the dangers of speculation and reading into the meaning of this mysterious painting.  In the process of deciphering the verse written on the note anchoring the composition, Herbert observes:  “Gnomic poems, particularly those that are esoteric texts, should be explained rather than translated word by word.  One should approach them by degrees of meaning, carefully and on tiptoes, because literalness renders their meaning shallow and frightens away mystery.”[ii]

 

bridle-3
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
1614
1’ 8” x 1’ 8”
Oil on wooden panel
Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Bret Waller, the Director Emeritus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art used to always start his talks to my classes with the explanation that:  “All works of art contain within themselves the definition of what they are about and how they were made.”[iii]  And then of course, he would go through the elements of the piece that we were standing in front of and explicate exactly that.  I have always tried to keep this lesson in mind, as both an artist and educator.

My reading over the last year, in both Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Sbigniew Herbert, has led to several new definitions and functions regarding the ekphrastic tradition.  Contained within the descriptions of certain works of visual art are not merely observations but also insights; not just formal analyses but also lyrical and metaphorical underpinnings.

Lessing does this by first arguing one side of the history and in the next chapter, arguing the exact opposite side in both dating and aesthetic problems.  Until more scientific dating can occur, we will be left with only a range of styles:  early or late, Greek or Roman, etc.  Herbert is aware of this dilemma as well, and even quotes the great French poet:  “Paul Valery warned:  ‘We should apologize that we dare to speak about painting.’  I was always aware of committing a tactless act.”[iv]

“I know well, too well, all the agonies and vain effort of what is called description, and also the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language—as voluminous, as receptive as hell—in which court verdicts and love novels are written.  I don’t even know very well what inclines me to undertake these efforts.  I would like to believe that it is my impervious ideal that requires me to pay it clumsy homages.”[v]

bridle-4
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
(DETAIL)

“Freedom – so many treatises were written about it that it became a pale, abstract concept.  But for the Dutch it was something as simple as breathing, looking and touching objects.  It did not need to be defined or beautified.  This is why there is no division in their art between what is great and small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary.  They painted apples and the portraits of fabric shopkeepers, pewter plates and tulips, with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison.”[vi]

 


[i] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; Notting Hill Editions; London, United Kingdom; 2012; p. 100.

[ii] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 127.

[iii] This observation is taken from my own notebooks and recollections of several public and private discussions with Mr. Bret Waller, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 1990-2001.

[iv] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 123.

[v] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 122.

[vi] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 150.

THE LAOCOÖN

Nothing extraneous.  Everything working.  With muscles tense, movement over every inch of the surface, the figures themselves create the space in which they exist, taking the place of time. Timeless.

The Priest Laocoön was a seer in the Temple of Apollo.  He had two sons, Antiphas and Thymbraeus.  One story has him ostracized from the temple for breaking his vow of celibacy.  Another describes his ill-fated warning to the assembled people of Troy against accepting a suspicious gift from the army of Greece:  the Trojan horse.  In either case, it is an ancient Greek sculpture that brings this story to life.

 

lacoon1
Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus of Rhodes
“The Laocoön”
200 BC — 100 AD
Marble
6’ 10” x 5’ 4” x 3’ 8”
The Vatican Museum, Vatican City

“… Of our men
One group stood marveling, gaping to see
The dire gift of the cold unbedded goddess,
The sheer mass of the horse.”

“Build up a bonfire under it,
This trick of the Greeks, a gift no one can trust,
Or cut it open, search the hollow belly!”

“Contrary notions pulled the crowd apart.
Next thing we knew, in front of everyone,
Laocoön with a great company
Came furiously running from the Height,
And still far off cried out:  ‘O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?’”[i]

Writing in the Aeneid the poet Virgil related the story of Laocoön’s warning to his fellow citizens, the subsequent sack of Troy, and that infamous horse.  Laocoön, sensing the horse to be hollow, struck it with his spear, echoing both inside and out.  So either Apollo, or Minerva, sent serpents in retaliation for Laocoön’s warnings and his defiance of the gods.  The research, dating, and other historical facts surrounding the telling of this story and the creation of the sculpture are, however, confusing.

Pliny the Elder attributed the commission of this sculpture to a team of three artists from Rhodes:  Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus.  They worked together seamlessly, interlacing the figures and serpents into a dynamic whole.  It was thought to have been completed between 200 BC and 100 AD but those dates continue to be debated.

The original work was buried and lost after being in the Palace of Titus around 79-81 AD. It was later rediscovered during an excavation in early 1506 and brought immediately to Pope Julius II who had it placed in the Vatican Collection.  His Holiness requested Michelangelo, who was working in Rome at the time, to inspect this newly discovered example of classical sculpture.  Upon seeing “The Laocoön” Michelangelo declared it to be the most beautiful example he had seen from ancient times.

At first “The Laocoön” was attributed to the Romans as a copy from a lost original.  Later it was theorized that it was not Roman, but truly a classical Greek composition.  This debate continued without much clarification until the historian Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote an explication of this sculpture in his “Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry” in 1766.  Lessing describes this sculpture and looks deeply into it, while simultaneously analyzing Virgil’s poem.

These art historical speculations pose a problem for the student of ekphrastics:  if it had been created earlier, then Virgil may have actually seen it and been inspired to write his account in the Aeneid.  However, if it had really been a Roman composition, then it was much later than Virgil, and possibly an illustration of his telling of this story.

In any event, Lessing’s descriptions and speculations are in themselves important examples of the ekphrastic tradition.  His observations search the surfaces of this piece of marble and look deeply into its meaning.  Describing a facial feature in one example, and then writing regarding the anguish coming from behind the mask, Lessing gives us a meditation on the expressive possibilities in a work of art.

 

lacoon2
Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros of Rhodes
“The Laocoön”
(DETAIL)

“Virgil’s Laocoön cries out, but this screaming Laocoön is the same man whom we already know and love as a prudent patriot and loving father.  We do not relate his cries to his character, but solely to his unbearable suffering.  It is this alone which we hear in them, and it was only by this means that the poet could convey it clearly to our senses.”[ii]

Lessing’s observations address the processes of both seeing and writing.  In his essay he searches for significant details that are employed for creative expression and he, himself, debates the use of these details in order to tell the entire story.  Which elements will work for the poet?  Which ones for the artists?

“It is claimed that representation in the arts covers all of visible nature, of which the beautiful is but a small part.  Truth and expression are art’s first law, and as nature herself is ever ready to sacrifice beauty for the sake of higher aims, so must the artist subordinate it to his general purpose and pursue it no further than truth and expression permit.  It is enough that truth and expression transform the ugliest aspects of nature into artistic beauty.”[iii]

 

lacoon3
Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros of Rhodes
“The Laocoön”
(VERSO)

“The idea of having the father and his two sons connected in one entanglement by means of the deadly serpents is undeniably an inspired one and gives evidence of a highly artistic imagination.  Whose was it, the poet’s or the artists’?”[iv]

“But only that which gives free rein to the imagination is effective.  The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine.  And the more we add in our imaginations, the more we must think we see.”[v]

Early in the summer of 2017, during a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Cité de Paris, I came upon the following statement on one of the information tags in an exhibition and copied it down in my notebook:

“Tout l’art du passe, de toutes les époques, de tout les civilisations surgit devant moi, tout est simultané comme si l’espace prenait la place du temps.”
—Alberto Giacometti, 1965[vi]

This led me back to a book of “Interpretive Drawings” by Alberto Giacometti that included two of his drawings from “The Laocoön.”  In English his statement reads:  “In all art of the past, of all eras, and all civilizations that came before me, all share a common vision in which space takes the place of time.”[vii]

 

lacoon4
Alberto Giacometti
“Laocoon, after a statue in the Vatican Museum”
1952Ballpoint pen drawing
11 1/2” x 8 1/4”
Annette and Alberto Giacometti Foundation,
Paris and Zurich

Not only did Alberto Giacometti go to this source in reference to the old masters, so did James Joyce when Stephen Dedalus comments on this very story in Ulysses:  “Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope.”[viii]

And this is how Virgil described Laocoön’s confrontation with this beast:

“…Some crookedness
Is in this thing.  Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all.”

“He broke off then
And rifled his big spear with all his might
Against the horse’s flank, the curve of the belly.
It stuck there trembling, and the rounded hull
Reverberated groaning at the blow.”[ix]

 

lacoon5
Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros of Rhodes
“The Laocoon”
200 BC — 100 AD
Marble
6’ 10” x 5’ 4” x 3’ 8”
The Vatican Museum, Vatican City

“…. But straight ahead
They slid until they reached Laocoön.
Twining about and feeding on the body.
Next they ensnared the man as he ran up
With weapons:  coils like cables looped and bound him
Twice round the middle; twice about his throat
They wipped their back-scales, and their heads towered,
While with both hands he fought to break the knots,
Drenched in slime, his head-hands black with venom,
Sending to heaven his appalling cries
Like a slashed bull escaping from an altar,
The fumbled axe shrugged off.  The pair of snakes
Now flowed away and made for the highest shrines,
The citadel of pitiless Minerva,
Where coiling they took cover at her feet
Under the rondure of her shield.  New terrors
Ran in the shaken crowd:  the word went round
Laocoön had paid, and rightfully,
For profanation of the sacred hulk
With his offending spear hurled at its flank.”[x]

 

lacoon6
Alberto Giacometti
“Head of Laocoön”
1952Ballpoint pen drawing
11 1/2” x 8 1/4”
Annette and Alberto Giacometti Foundation,
Paris and Zurich


[i] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); Vintage Classics and Random House; New York, New York; 1990; BOOK II, Lines 42-45 & 52-61, p. 34.

[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 24.

[iii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.

[iv] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 35.

[v] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.

[vi] Carluccio, Luigi; Giacometti:  A Sketchbook of Interpretive Drawings; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1967. Giacometti’s statement regarding these drawings led me to revisit this book of his drawings copied from many historic works of art.

[vii] From an e-mail correspondence between this writer and Dr. Rosalie Vermette, Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Paris, France, and Professor Emerita, School of Liberal Arts, Indiana University and Purdue University at Indianapolis, 22 May 2018.  

[viii] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1934 & 1997; p. 301.

[ix] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 67-75, p. 35.

[x] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 290-310, p. 41.