ARE WE CLIMBING JACOB’S LADDER?

“And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!  And behold, the Lord stood

above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God if Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the

ladder1
Attavante
“Le songe de Saint Romuald et l’Echelle des moines”[i]
1502
Miniature on parchment
44 cm. x 34 cm.
Wildenstein Collection of Illuminations
Musee Marmottan, Paris
south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families bless themselves.  Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.’  Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place….This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”[ii]

The Jacob’s Ladder

“The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence for angels’ feet that
only glance in their
tread, and
need not touch the stone.

It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a
doubtful,
a doubting night gray.

A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next giving a
little
lift of wings:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut
stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past
him.
The poem ascends.”[iii]

There are many literary references and historical illustrations to the passage of people and angels traveling between Heaven and Earth.  There are also contemporary examples such as the one above by Denise Levertov and one at the end of this essay by Bob Dylan.  In literature these draw upon the Old Testament story of the Dream of Jacob. In music there is a major source for this in the great American Southern Baptist spiritual:  “Jacob’s Ladder.”

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

Soldiers of the cross.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
We are brothers, and sisters, all.”[iv]

It was one of the first African American spirituals to become popular with both black and white citizens of the south.  There is no record of when it was written or who wrote it, but it came into being sometime between 1750 and 1825, and was known as a call and response song amongst slaves.  The ladder quickly became one of many symbols for the means of escaping slavery.

As is typical with folk traditions, this song was handed down through generations and verses were added and changed to reflect more recent times.  Significant versions from the 20th Century include recordings by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and most recently by Bruce Springsteen during his “Seeger Sessions.”

ladder2
Georgia O’Keeffe
“Ladder to the Moon”
1958
Oil on canvas
40 3/16” x 30 1/4”
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

In the visual arts as well, this imagery has wide ranging uses, from medieval manuscript illuminations to pieces of surrealism and even to contemporary sculpture.  The “Dream of Romuald with the stairs of the Monks” from an Italian book illumination at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris is a reference to the story of Jacob’s Ladder.  Many early 20th Century artists incorporated this imagery into their work, from realists to surrealists, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Joan Miro and most recently, Martin Puryear, who has used the ladder form in his sculpture dedicated to Booker T. Washington.

ladder3
Martin Puryear
“Ladder for Booker T. Washington”
1996
Wood (ash and maple)
432” x 22 3/4” x 3”
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas

Finally, a young artist here in Indiana has for several years been employing severe and unusual views of many ordinary and everyday objects.  Having studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Pont-Aven, France and the Arizona State University in Tempe, Sarah Jones has always had an eye for the unique angle of things.

ladder4
Sarah K. Jones
“Ladder #2”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

The dramatic placement and situation of certain objects is combined with her own personal point of view towards these things.  Her paintings above and below best illustrate this, as does her own statement regarding how they came about.

ladder5
Sarah K. Jones
“Ladder #3”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

“The paintings came about after a summer spent in the four corners region. I was working on a ranch in Durango, CO and took weekend trips to places like Mesa Verde, Taos, and Albuquerque. It was my first trip west of the Mississippi and I was fascinated by the differences in landscape and even quality of light compared to Indiana. The images which inspired the paintings were taken at Taos Pueblo. The sky was SO blue. The light was SO bright. The shadows were SO strong. I loved the clean lines of the buildings and the shadow patterns made by ladders leaning against the adobe buildings. They formed lovely right angle triangles: building= side 1, ladder = side 2 and shadow of ladder falling across the ground = side 3.”[v]

ladder6
Sarah Kathryn Jones
“Ladder #1”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

Finally, I am reminded of a certain theme that runs through much of the writing of William Carlos Williams:  primarily in his epic poem “Patterson” and secondly in an essay on the work of the artist Charles Sheeler.  He mentions several times that we should “Say it!  No ideas but in things!”[vi]  And further, he observes that “It is in things that for the artist power lies….”[vii]  So, it is in both poetry and painting that a single object might become a powerful image.

“May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young”[viii]

 


[i] Translated as “The Dream of St. Romuald and the Ladder of the Monks” this is a piece from the Wildenstein Collection of historic manuscript illuminations at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris. One historian, Peter Damian, has noted that St. Romuald’s Dream is also a conflation of the legend of Jacob’s Dream.

[ii] “Genesis 28:11-17” The Holy Bible:  Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinburgh; 1952; p. 21.

[iii] Levertov, Denise; Selected Poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2002; p. 25.

[iv] Springsteen, Bruce; “Jacob’s Ladder” The Seeger Sessions; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1998 & 2006.

[v] Jones, Sarah; An artist’s statement regarding her “Ladder Paintings” as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 16 May 2017.

[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6 & 9.

[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; p. 234.

[viii] Dylan, Bob; “Forever Young” Planet Waves; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1974 & 2004.

THE DISCOBOLUS

disco1
“Discobolus”
Roman copy after a Greek original, c. 450 BC.
Lifesize
Marble
Museo delle Terme, Rome

It is an icon, some would even call it a cliché, one of the many great sculptures from the ancient Greeks that have been handed down to us through Roman copies.  It has, however, lasted throughout all of these years, and no doubt will continue.  It may not be relevant, but it was and is influential.  During all of its history artists have studied these pieces and writers have been inspired by them, including a most important San Francisco Bay Area poet.

From classical Greek sculpture to Goya, from Marc Chagall to Charlie Chaplin, and even from Morris Graves to Edward Hopper, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has always written about a variety of artists.  He also speaks of both the detail and the overall, both the immediate and the historical.  He notices the calipers in the hands of the sculptor as well as the ramifications for an articulated detail that carries us over the centuries.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 11.12.40 AM[i]

“Discobolus” or the “Discus Thrower” is of course a marble copy of the original bronze Greek sculpture by Myron.  And, at one time or another, it has made its way, through academic castings and copies, into almost every art school in the world.  This is where Vincent Van Gogh first encountered it in a drawing class in Antwerp in 1886.

“Students at the Antwerp academy were expected to work three or four days on a single drawing, so that during his six-week stay Van Gogh probably executed about a dozen sheets.  We know both from his letters and from eyewitness accounts that he copied several different sculptures, but this study from a cast of the Discus Thrower (ca. 450 B.C.) by Myron of Eleutherai is the only example to have survived.”[ii]

disco2
Vincent Van Gogh
“The Discus Thrower”
1886
Black chalk on paper
22 1/8” x 17 1/2”
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Most recently, from Pop Art to the Post-Modern, we encounter themes and variations played out in an art historical context. Ned Rifkin in writing about the artist Robert Moskowitz’s borrowing of sculptural imagery from Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” to Rodin’s “The Thinker” and even to the Roman copy of the “Discus Thrower” has observed:

“Moskowitz reduced the barely recognizable image to a hard edged outline. . . . It becomes. . . its vestigal shadow and reads not as an experience of form in space but as a sign.”

“Certainly, the artist is making a statement about self-consciousness while also reinventing the form.  It definitely uses that known image and says, ‘What does it mean now?’” [iii]

disco3
Robert Moskowitz
“Bowler”
1984
Pastel on paper
108” x 44 5/8”
Mr. and Mrs. Harry W. Anderson, San Francisco, California

[i] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; A Coney Island of the Mind; New Directions Publishing Company; New York, New York; 1958; p. 79.

[ii] Ives, Colta, Susan Alyson Stein, et al; Vincent Van Gogh:  The Drawings; The Metropilitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2005; p. 126.

[iii] Rifkin, Ned; Robert Moskowitz; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in association with Thames and Hudson; New York, New York; 1989; p. 42.

HOW TO DRAW A CATHEDRAL

“…even though I have so profound an admiration for the beauty of Chartres, I realize strongly that it belongs to a culture, a tradition, a people of which I am not a part….It seems to be a persistent necessity for me to feel a sense of derivation from the country in which I live and work.”[i]

cathedral1
Charles Sheeler
“Chartres Cathedral”
1929
B&W photograph
9” x 7”
The Lane Collection, Charles Sheeler Archives
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

I have often had a similar feeling as that expressed by Charles Sheeler above.  As an American I have always felt that my voice and vision should grow out of my own country and experience.  However, I had not counted on participating in a graduate art history seminar at Indiana University on Gothic Architecture and seeing, for the first time, a beautiful little book titled “The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt” that had been edited by Theodore Bowie.[ii] Many years later, searching through the ‘librairie’ at the Musee Cluny in Paris, I purchased a more recent and larger edition of the same title.

Villard de Honnecourt may have been an architect, or possibly an itinerant designer or draughtsman.  Some historians have described him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the dark-ages.  In any event, he did produce a sketchbook full of drawings and devices that changed how we see the world.  They were at least a ‘pattern book’ or stylistic guide to the articulation of Gothic facades and interiors.[iii]  These drawings by Honnecourt were not the only reason, but they were one of the reasons that allowed this new ‘gothic’ style to spread throughout Europe.

cathedral2
Villard de Honnecourt
“Double Row of Flying Buttresses, Rheims Cathedral VI”
(The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, [C.LXIV])
1230
Pen & ink on paper
9.25” x 6.1”
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
These little drawings are focused, insightful, powerfully structural, filled with character and attention to detail, and I always think of them immediately whenever I hear of the writer Raymond Carver or read about his short story “Cathedral.”

In this story, a young couple is surprised by a visit from a friend of the wife, an old blind man for whom she had worked several years ago.  She did his reading for him and other chores.  He was in town taking care of some business after the death of his wife and he wanted to ‘see’ them again.

The husband was a bit leery of this old man and his unexpected visit, as it was his wife who had been close to him.  They had dinner and a few drinks and afterwards they watched a program on Gothic Cathedrals on TV.  The wife had soon gone to sleep, leaving the two men in the living room, when the old blind man came up with this suggestion:  would the young man teach him how to draw a cathedral?  All that he really new about these things was what he had just heard on the TV program and didn’t know what they really looked like.

This young man, totally disoriented and slightly tipsy, searched the house for papers and pens and drawing materials and spread them all out on the living room floor.

“The blind man got down from the sofa and sat next to me on the carpet.”

“He ran his fingers over the paper.  He went up and down the sides of the paper.  The edges, even the edges.  He fingered the corners.”

“‘All right,’ he said.  ‘All right, let’s do her.’”

“He found my hand, the hand with the pen.  He closed his hand over my hand.  ‘Go ahead, bub, draw,’ he said.  ‘Draw.  You’ll see.  I’ll follow along with you.  It’ll be okay.  Just begin now like I’m telling you.  You’ll see.  Draw,’ the blind man said.”

cathedral3
Villard de Honnecourt
“Exterior and Interior Elevations, Rheims Cathedral IV”
(The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, [C.LXII])
1230
Pen & ink on paper
9.25” x 6.1”
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
“The blind man said, ‘We’re drawing a cathedral….Press hard,’ he said to me.  That’s right.  That’s good,’ he said.”

“‘You got it, bub.  I can tell.  You didn’t think you could.  But you can, can’t you?  You’re cooking with gas now.’”

“‘Close your eyes now,’ the blind man said to me.

I did it.  I closed them just like he said.

‘Are they closed?’ he said.  ‘Don’t fudge.’

‘They’re closed,’ I said.

‘Keep them that way,’ he said.  He said, ‘Don’t stop now.  Draw.”

cathedral4
Villard de Honnecourt
“North Tower of Laon Cathedral”
(The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, [C.XIX])
1230
Pen & ink on paper
9.25” x 6.1”
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
“So we kept on with it.  His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper.  It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”

“Then he said, ‘I think that’s it.  I think you got it,’ he said.  ‘Take a look.  What do you think?’”

“But I had my eyes closed.  I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer.  I thought it was something I ought to do.”[iv]

 


 

[i] Tsujimoto, Karen; Images of America:  Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of Washington Press; Seattle & London; 1982; p. 85.  (Statement made by Sheeler on his series of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, originally published in Constance Rourke; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; New York, New York; Harcourt, Brace; 1938; p. 130).

[ii] Bowie, Theodore; The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt; Indiana University Press; Bloomington and London; 1959.

[iii] von Simpson, Otto; The Gothic Cathedral:  Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order; Harper & Row Publishers; New York and Evanston; 1962; p. 198.

[iv] Carver, Raymond; “Cathedral” Where I’m Calling From; Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1991; pp. 306-307.

LAY LADY DAY!

“Lady Day got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies….”[i]

holiday
Sid Grossman,
“Portrait of Billie Holiday”
Gelatin silver print, 1948,
13 3/16” x 10 11/16”
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC.

Her real name was Eleanora Fagan Gough, born in Philadelphia in 1915.  She spent most of her childhood in Baltimore raised by relatives.  She took the name ‘Billie’ in honor of her favorite actress Billie Dove and the name ‘Holiday’ from Clarence Holiday, her probable father.  Her only training as a teenager was singing along with phonograph records at her aunt’s house.  She was discovered by John Hammond and made her first recording with Benny Goodman in 1933.

Billie Holiday would later record and work with Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie, Artie Shaw and Lester Young.  Many of her contemporaries noted that she made each and every song her own, took them to unheard of heights and depths, bursting into the open air.

Her memory has been celebrated in the song “Angel of Harlem” by the rock band U2 and by the American sculptor Mark di Suvero in a monumental piece “For Lady Day” in south Chicago and perhaps most poignantly by the New York School poet Frank O’Hara upon reading of her death in 1959.

“The Day Lady Died”

“It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off
the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”[ii]

holiday2
Mark di Suvero
“For Lady Day”
1968-1969
30’ x 18’
Railroad tank car, I-beams and cable
Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park
Governor’s State University,
University Park, Illinois

Finally, in describing this piece in tribute to Billie Holiday and the emergence of a new sculptural space, the critic Peter Schjeldahl has obsered:  “The colosal ‘drawing in space’ with assembled elements—a specialty of the Manilow park, whose ‘For Lady Day’ by Mark di Suvero is a masterpiece of the mode—burst the boundaries of the traditional gallery and garden display and entered the open air.”[iii]

 


[i] U2; “Angel of Harlem,” Rattle and Hum; audio recording 422-842 299-2; Island Records; New York, New York; 1988.

[ii] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1964 & 2014; p. 21.

[iii] Manilow, Lewis, et al; The Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park; Governors State University Foundation; University Park, Illinois; 1987.  (Including the essay “A Park for the Prairie God” by Peter Schjeldahl); p. 11.

WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER

ohara1
Alice Neel
“Frank O’Hara”
Oil on canvas
1960
34” x 16 1/8”
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC.

He started out manning the front desk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York right after finishing up graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1951.  He soon became an Assistant Curator and later an Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture.

He would often take off for lunch and scribble notes in the park while he ate a sandwich, or he would walk around the block, stop in at the Ollivetti Shop pretending to test out the latest typewriter and type out 10 or 15 lines on a sheet of paper and then return to his office.  “Lunch Poems” he would later call them.[i]

Although his degrees were in creative writing, Frank O’Hara had a keen eye and a contagious smile and soon met many of the other younger painters and poets in New York.  Amongst his new circle of friends and associates were Grace Hartigan, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter, Michael Goldberg, Alfred Leslie and Joan Mitchell.  He would often collaborate with several of these painters, especially Larry Rivers, Michael Goldberg, and Grace Hartigan.  One important example of this was the series of Hartigan’s paintings and O’Hara’s poems titled “Oranges” exhibited and published through Tibor de Nagy in 1953.[ii]

ohara2
Grace Hartigan
“Oranges No. 1”
1952
Oil on paper
44 1/4” x 33 1/2”
Poetry and Rare Books Collection
State University of New York
Buffalo, New York

 

“WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER”
“I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why?  I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.  Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting.  I drop in.
‘Sit down and have a drink’ he
says.  I drink:  we drink.  I look
up. ‘You have SARDINES in it.’
‘Yes, it needed something there.’
‘Oh.’  I go and the days go by
and I drop in again.  The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by.  I drop in.  The painting is
finished.  ‘Where’s the SARDINES?’
All that’s left is just
letters.  ‘It was too much,’ Mike says.

But me?  One day I am thinking of
a color:  orange.  I write a line
about orange.  Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page.  There shoud be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life.  Days go by.  It is even in
prose, I am a real poet.  My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet.  It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES.  And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.”[iii]

ohara3
Michael Goldberg
“Sardines”
1955
Oil and adhesive tape on canvas
80 3/4” x 66”
National Museum of American Art
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

 


[i] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 2014.

[ii] Perloff, Marjorie; Frank O’Hara:  Poet among Painters; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1998, pp. 76-77.

[iii] Allen, Donald, ed.; The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London; 1995; pp. 261-262.

THE CHINESE WRITTEN CHARACTER AS A MEDIUM FOR POETRY

“Today he is hardly likely to find himself unless he is a non-conformist and a rebel.  To say this is neither dangerous nor new.  It is what society really expects of its artists.  For today the artist has, whether he likes it or not, inherited the combined functions of hermit, pilgrim, prophet, priest, shaman, sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist, and bonze.”[i]

This is what Thomas Merton had to say about contemporary artists and writers.  He had multiple points of view regarding this position:  as a poet himself, as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Lexington, Kentucky, as a student of calligraphy and as a colleague and friend to others in the field, including Ad Reinhart, John Cage, D. T. Suzuki and Jacques Maritain.

chinese
Thomas Merton
“Untitled” (Sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist)
c. 1963
Brush and India ink on paper
10 1/4” x 7 1/2”
The Thomas Merton Center,
Bellarmine University,
Louisville, Kentucky

In the beginning years of the 20th century Henri Matisse began thinking and writing about the importance of signs.  He saw this especially in the pen and ink drawings of Vincent van Gogh, which were an early influence on him, as well as in certain examples of calligraphy from Oriental art.

chinese2
Henri Matisse
“Standing Nude, Arms Covering her Face”
1901-1903
Ink on paper
10 3/8” x 8”
Gift of Edward Steichen
Museum of Modern Art, New York

In these same years the poet Ezra Pound was sent a manuscript that had been written by the scholar Ernest Fenollosa who had been studying the origins of the Japanese and Chinese alphabets, whose characters had originally been drawings!

“Chinese poetry has the unique advantage of combining both elements.  It speaks at once with the vividness of painting, and with the mobility of sounds.”[ii]

chinese3[iii]

Ezra Pound called this the ‘ideogramic method’ and used what he had learned from Fenollosa to define and clarify the quality known as ‘economy of means’ that is so important to both painters and poets.  This also led directly to the invention of ‘Imagist Poetry’ that is characterized by clarity and directness.

In letters and conversations with Louis Aragon throughout his lifetime Henri Matisse often explained that:  “The sign is determined at the moment I use it and for the object of which it must form a part.  For this reason I cannot determine in advance signs which never change and which would be like writing:  that would paralyze the freedom of my invention.”[iv]

chinese4
Henri Matisse
“Acrobat”
1952
Brush and ink on paper
41 3/8” x 29 1/2”
Private Collection

Aragon helped to ‘translate’ many of Matisse’s statements, paintings and drawings, into literature through his essay ‘Matisse en France’ from 1942-43 and the two volume ‘Matisse:  A Novel’ from 1972.

Similar concerns can be seen in the works of Henri Michaux working in Paris and Thomas Merton working in Lexington, Kentucky.  They were both interested in painting and poetry, through which they each investigated the use of signs.

“To abstract means to free oneself, to come disentangled.”

“The hand should be empty, should in no way hinder what’s flowing into it.”

“Only the ‘exact placement,’ the ‘just proportion’ matter.”[v]

chinese5
Henri Michaux
“Untitled (Mouvements)”
c. 1950-51
India ink on paper
12 5/8” x 9 1/2”
Private collection

More recently, in an interview with Janie C. Lee at the Whitney Museum of American Art on 21 May 1998, Brice Marden described some of his work in the “St. Bart’s 1985-86 Series” in this way:  “The whole history of the life is right there on the surface.  These drawings were all started as individual sheets in a book.  Then I took the book apart and started putting them together in different sequences.  Some I reworked, putting two sheets on

chinese6
Brice Marden
“St. Bart’s 1985-86 N.Y. 3”
1985-1986
Ink and gouache on paper
7 5/16” x 7 7/8”
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

each page . . . . Top to bottom and across to the left.  I was following the Chinese calligraphic method.  It was easier for me because I’m left handed, so if I work from right to left, I don’t run the chance of smudging the ink or some marking.  These were very early calligraphy-based drawings.”[vi]

The effects of Matisse’s experiments along with Fenollosa’s observations have been wide ranging:  from the paintings of Henri Michaux to the calligraphies of Thomas Merton, to Brice Marden’s recent drawings and even to a few of my own students over the years, especially the work of Rene Gonzalez.

chinese7
Rene Gonzales
“The Civil War Cannon”
Pen & ink on paper
8 1/2” x 11”
1997
Courtesy of the artist

“Yes, I remember these drawings very well…they were an automatic drawing series.  I had been studying a lot of Motherwell at that time and watched a documentary on his Reconciliation Elegy work.  In it, he described a process where he would sit down with a stack of paper and ink and a brush and just knock out gestures with no edits or reworks.  He could then look at 50 to 100 drawings on the floor and begin to select the ones he wanted to investigate further.  The series of drawings I did went through a similar process and only a few were then selected as the actual compositions to my paintings.  I believe they were either 8 1/2 x 11 or smaller but I do not remember.”[vii]

chinese8
Rene Gonzales
“An M-16”
Pen & ink on paper
8 1/2” x 11”
1997
Courtesy of the artist

“The freedom of the artist is to be sought precisely in the choice of his work and not in the choice of the role as ‘artist’ which society asks him to play.”[viii]

chinese9[ix]


[i] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes:  The Art of Thomas Merton; New Seeds Publishing; Boston & London; 2006; p. 100.

[ii] Fenollosa, Ernest and Ezra Pound, ed.; The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1936; p. 9.

[iii] This example has been published in both Fenollosa (p. 8) and Michaux (p. 43).  It shows three characters, all containing legs.  To the right the ideogram for ‘horse’ with four legs underneath.  In the center is an ‘eye’ being carried by two legs.  And on the left the image of a man.  As both authors explain, these images taken together produce the line:  “man sees horse.”

[iv] Schneider, Pierre; Matisse; Rizzoli International; New York, New York; 1984 and 2002; p. 576.

[v] Michaud, Henri; translated by Gustaf Sobin; Henri Michaux:  Ideograms in China; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1975; (unpaginated).

[vi] Lee, Janie C.; Brice Marden Drawings; The Whitney Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1998; p. 19.

[vii] From E-MAIL communications between the artist and this writer on 14 January and 27 January 2017.

[viii] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes:  The Art of Thomas Merton; p. 100.

[ix] This last example is taken from Fenollosa (p. 40).  It shows a ‘mouth’ on the lower right with words and tongue coming out of it.  On the left is the figure of a ‘man.’  Taken together, they form the sign:  “a man standing beside his word, truth.”

THE CUTTING PROW

“Everything must
Be arranged
To a hair’s breadth
In thunderclap
Order.”
Antonin Artaud, 1947[i]

In conversations with many of his friends over the years, especially with the poet Louis Aragon, Matisse often stated that:  “The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language….”[ii]

It truly was a new world of signs and images that Matisse was creating.  Even as he was recovering from several surgeries late in life and confined to his bed or wheelchair, he kept working.  The philosopher Henri Focillon described this as a carving out of space or as the work of art creating its own space in the life of forms.  The Beat Generation poet Ed Sanders has also described this as ‘those scissors flashing in the world of forms’ or as a ‘cutting’ form.

As Artoud described this process it is a project dealing with arrangements to “a hair’s breadth.”  Later it would be suggested by Sanders that he wants it adjusted “This way and that, Minutitudinous!”

Or as Matisse himself has noted “The artist’s role is not to translate an observation, but to express the impact an object makes on his own nature:  the shock, the initial reaction.”[iii]

“A work of art is situated in space.  But it will not do to say it simply exists in space:  a work of art treats space according to its own needs, defines space and even creates such space as may be necessary to it.  The space of life is a known quantity to which life readily submits; the space of art is a plastic and changing material.”[iv]

THE CUTTING PROW:  FOR HENRI MATISSE

“The genius was 81
Fearful of blindness
Caught in a wheelchair
Staring at death

But the Angel of mercy
Gave him a year
To scissor some shapes
To soothe the scythe

And shriek! shriek!
Became
swawk! swawk!
The peace of
Scissors.

prow1
Helene Adant
“Matisse at work in his studio in Nice”
B&W Photograph
1952
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

There was something besides
The inexpressible

Thrill

Of cutting a beautiful shape—-
For

Each thing had a ‘sign’
Each thing had a ‘symbol’
Each thing had a cutting form

-swawk swawkk___
to scissor seize.

‘One must study an object a long time,’
the genius said,
‘to know what its sign is.’

The scissors were his scepter
The cutting
Was as the prow of a barque
To sail him away.
There’s a photograph
which shows him sitting in his wheelchair
bare foot touching the floor
drawing the crisscross steel
a shape in the gouache

His helper sits near him
Till he hands her the form
To pin to the wall

prow2
Helene Adant
“Paule Martin and Matisse in the Hotel Regina, Nice”
B&W Photograph
1952
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

He points with a stick
How he wants it adjusted
This way and that,
Minutitudinous

The last blue iris blooms at
The top of its stalk
Scissors/scepter
Cutting prow

(sung)

Ah, keep those scissors flashing in the
World of Forms, Henri Matisse

The cutting of the scissors
Was the prow of a boat
To take him away
The last blue iris
Blooms at the top
On a warm spring day

prow3
Helene Adant
“Matisse in Vence with scissors and gouache cut-outs”
1947-1948
B&W Photograph
Cameraphoto, Venice

Ah, keep those scissors flashing
In the World of Forms, Henri Matisse

Sitting in a wheelchair
Bare feet touching the floor
Angel of Mercy
Pushed him over Next to Plato’s door

Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow

ahh
swawk swawk

ahh swawk swawk

ahh swawk swawk.”[v]


[i] Artaud, Antonin, (Clayton Eshleman, translator); To Have Done with the Judgement of God; Black Sparrow Press; Los Angeles; 1975. p. 1.

[ii] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, London; 1995; p. 150.

[iii] Schneider, Pierre; Matisse; Rizzoli International; New York, New York; 1984 and 2002; p. 355.

[iv] Focillon, Henri; The Life of Forms in Art; Zone Books; New York, New York; 1989; p. 65.

[v] Sanders, Ed; “The Cutting Prow,” Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century; Coffee House Press; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2009; pp. 151-153.