LIKE THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND

In the New Testament both Matthew and Luke relate the story of Jesus being confronted and questioned by the Pharisees, who were pretending to be ‘teachers’ and trying to catch this young man in his own teachings.  When questioned by his disciples later, Jesus described the Pharisees like this:

“. . . they are blind guides.  And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”[i]

blind1a
Pieter Breughel the Elder
“The Parable of the Blind”
1568
Distemper on linen canvas
86 cm x 154 cm
Museo di Capadimonte, Naples, Italy

It was a powerful image that caught the imagination of many Northern Renaisance artists, especially Pieter Breughel the Elder.  Later still, it continued to influence writers such as Charles Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams, who included this subject in his final collection, Pictures from Brueghel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1963, just two months after that author’s death.

“This horrible but superb painting
the parable of the blind
without a red

in the composition shows a group
of beggars leading
each other diagonally downward

across the canvas
from one side
to stumble finally into a bog

where the picture
and the composition ends back
of which no seeing man

is represented the unshaven
features of the des-
titute with their few

pitiful possessions a basin
to wash in a peasant
cottage is seen and a church spire

the faces are raised
as toward the light
there is no detail extraneous

to the composition one
follows the others stick in
hand triumphant to disaster” [ii]

Paintings by Pieter Breughel and poems by William Carlos Williams have continued to inspire and influence artists and writers today.  “Referring to a group of figural drawings he had begun around 1963, Willem de Kooning would say in 1975, ‘I draw while painting, and I don’t know the difference between painting and drawing.  The drawings that interest me most are made with eyes closed.’”[iii]

They all looked like scratches, these drawings that de Kooning called ‘blind’ drawings.  We first saw them in an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center[iv] in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979.  At the time, this exhibition was known as “Recent de Kooning” and featured paintings, drawings, and sculptures completed since 1969.

blind2a
Willem de Kooning
“Blind Drawing”
1969
Ink on paper
26” x 18 7/8”
Estate of the artist

What we didn’t know at the time, was that de Kooning completed these drawings in a vertical format and later rotated them 90 or 180 degrees in order to further dissorient the viewer.  When re-oriented to their original format certain details emerge:  these details include several clear references to Breughel’s great painting, “The Parable of the Blind.”

blind3a
Pieter Breughel the Elder
“The Parable of the Blind”
DETAIL

You wouldn’t believe the number of art students who in studying this painting will draw all of the figures straight across the page from left to right, all in a line, and all horizontally.  Totally ignoring the descending diagonal from the upper left to the lower right.  This of course flattens both the movement and the composition.

blind4a
Casey Roberts
“Study #1 from The Parable of the Blind”
1993-1994
Brush and ink on paper
18” x 24”
Courtesy of the artist, Indianapolis, Indiana

One younger artist who noticed this right away was Casey Roberts.  Examples of his brush and ink drawings above and below, clearly show that he saw this diagonal movement and took it to a contemporary conclusion.  As long time faculty members in various art schools around the country we could all probably be described as the blind leading the blind.  An all encompassing metaphor.

blind5
Casey Roberts
“Study #2 from The Parable of the Blind”
1993-1994
Brush and ink on paper
18” x 24”
Courtesy of the artist, Indianapolis, Indiana


[i] “Matthew 15:13-14” The Holy Bible:  Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinbugh; 1952; p. 770.

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; p. 11.

[iii] Elderfield, John, et al; de Kooning a Retrospective; The Museum of Modern Art; New York, New York; 2011; p. 369.

[iv] Cowart, Jack, and Sanford Sivits Shaman; de Kooning 1969-1978; University of Northern Iowa; Cedar Falls, Iowa; 1978.

THE PALACE AT 4:00 AM

“In the Palace at 4 A.M. you walk from one room to the next by going through the walls. You don’t need to use the doorways. There is a door, but it is standing open, permanently. If you were to walk through it and didn’t like what was on the other side you could turn and come back to the place you started from. What is done can be undone.”[i]

palace1
Alberto Giacometti
“My Studio”
1932
Pencil on paper
12 9/16” x 18 7/16”
Kupferstichkabinett, Kunstmuseum, Basel

In a drawing of the interior of his studio in 1932, we can see an in progress state of this sculpture sitting squarely in the middle ground. Alberto Giacometti completed the “Palace at 4:00 AM” sometime in 1933 and by 1936 it had been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent collection.

“This object took shape little by little in the late summer of 1932; it revealed itself to me slowly, the various parts taking their exact form and their precise place within the whole. By autumn it had attained such reality that its actual execution in space took no more than one day.

It is related without any doubt to a period in my life that had come to an end a year before, when for six whole months hour after hour was passed in the company of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, magically transformed my every moment. We used to construct a fantastic palace at night—days and nights had the same color, as if everything happened just before daybreak; throughout the whole time I never saw the sun—a very fragile palace of matchsticks.

At the slightest false move a whole section of this tiny construction would collapse.

We would always begin it over again.

palace2
Alberto Giacometti
“The Palace at 4:00 AM”
1932-1933
Wood, glass, wire and string
25” high
Museum of Modern Art, New York

I don’t know why it came to be inhabited by a spinal column in a cage—the spinal column this woman sold me one of the very first nights I met her on the street—and by one of the skeleton birds that she saw the very night before the morning in which our life together collapsed—the skeleton birds that flutter with cries of joy at four o’clock in the morning very high above the pool of clear, green water where the extremely fine, white skeletons of fish float in the great unroofed hall.

In the middle there rises the scaffolding of a tower, perhaps unfinished or, since its top has collapsed, perhaps also broken.

On the other side there appeared the statue of a woman, in which I recognize my mother, just as she appears in my earliest memories. The mystery of her long black dress touching the floor troubled me;

it seemed to me like a part of her body, and aroused in me a feeling of fear and confusion. All the rest has vanished, and escaped my attention. This figure stands out against the curtain that is repeated three times, the very curtain I saw when I opened my eyes for the first time . . . .

I can’t say anything about the red object in front of the board;

I identify it with myself.”[ii]

Although Giacometti’s statement is a piece of surrealist writing in and of itself, it is a very lyrical story. As is the original sculpture. Its effect on the art world was almost immediate. At least three pieces by David Smith can trace their roots to this piece: “Home of the Welder” from 1945, “Interior for Exterior” from 1939, and “Interior” from 1937.

palace3
David Smith
“Interior”
1937
Painted steel and bronze
15 1/2” x 26” x 6”
Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Between 1935 and 1966 the sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed a total of twenty stage sets for the Martha Graham Dance Company. Sometime in the early 1940’s the choreographer approached the sculptor, proposing that he design the stage set for a new ballet. She insisted that he accompany her, right then and there, to the Museum of Modern Art to view Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture “The Palace at 4:00 AM.” Noguchi knew in an instant what Ms. Graham was asking of him and the quality of space that she was looking for. He agreed immediately to a stage design based on this piece and working with the composer Aaron Copeland the three of them produced one of the most important ballets of the 20th Century: “Appalachian Spring.”[iii]

palace4
Isamu Noguchi
“Stage set for the Martha Graham ballet Appalachian Spring”
Wood and paint on canvas
1944
The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Long Island City, New York

The influence of this piece has continued to this day and has crossed over many boundaries and disciplines. In his novel of 1996, So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell uses this sculpture as both a reference and a structure for his writing. He weaves it in and out of the story in the same way that his characters, two young boyhood friends, weave their own way through growing up in the small town in Lincoln, Illinois.

“When, wandering through the Museum of Modern Art, I come upon the piece of sculpture by Alberto Giacometti with the title ‘Palace at 4 a.m.,’ I always stand and look at it—partly because it reminds me of my father’s new house in its unfinished state and partly because it is so beautiful”

“I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than the actual experience. What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.”[iv]

 


[i] Maxwell, William; So Long, See You Tomorrow; Vintage International; New York, New York; 1996; pp. 131-132.

[ii] Selz, Peter; Alberto Giacometti; The Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Company; New York, New York; 1965; p. 44.

[iii] Graham, Martha; Blood Memory: An Autobiography; Doubleday; New York, New York; 1991; p. 223.

[iv] Maxwell, William; So Long, See You Tomorrow; pp. 25-27.

THE DOG OF ART

“It’s me. One day I saw myself in the street just like that. I was the dog.”[i]

giacommeti1
Alberto Giacometti
“Le Chien”
1951
Bronze
45 x 98 x 15 cm.
Annette et Alberto Giacometti Foundation, Zurich

“The Dog of Art”

“That dog with daisies for eyes
who flashes forth
flame of his very self at every bark
is the Dog of Art.
Worked in wool, his blind eyes
look inward to caverns and jewels
which they see perfectly,
and his voice
measures forth the treasure
in music sharp and loud,
sharp and bright,
bright flaming barks,
and growling smoky soft, the Dog
of Art turns to the world
the quietness of his eyes.”[ii]

The first time I had heard of the ‘dog of art’ was through this work and from other poets, especially in Baltimore: Jean Rubin and Dr. William Kinter. And later through Edward Hirsch when he visited here in Indianapolis and Chicago. The dog of art was a daemon of sorts: an impish figure who would torture every artist. Pinching a nose here, pulling on an ear there. Tickling or itching one’s body in some way that just could not be ignored, as hard as one might try.

This of course created a tension, a sense that could only be released or satisfied by making something! Denise Levertov and Edward Hirsch are both writers who have shown us this fact. Over and over. The discipline of a writer who continually carves out a vision and a voice. Exactly what Alberto Giacometti would do: not just in sculpture, but he is carving out a space or form in every one of his paintings and drawings as well.

giacommeti2
Henri Cartier-Bresson
“Alberto Giacometti”
1961
B & W photograph
Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris

Whether he was crossing the street near 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Paris to make his way from his studio to a café, or returning to the studio, he was like a dog in the rain, wasn’t he? Caught in a significant moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson on one of these daily trecks, his coat pulled up over his head to protect from the rain, he rarely strayed from his usual patterns.

As the writer James Lord described it, it was in this nearby café where Alberto “…ate what was his ritual lunch: two hard boiled eggs, two slices of cold ham with a piece of bread, two glasses of Beaujolais, and two large cups of coffee.”[iii] He ordered this very same combination for almost 40 years. He worked every day and made his models do the same. Strictly.   Religiously.

“…a street during the rain and the figure was me….Me scurrying down the street in the rain.”[iv]

giacommeti3
Alberto Giacometti
“Walking Quickly under the Rain”
1949
Bronze
32” long
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Bunshaft

“The Rain”

“Trying to remember old dreams. A voice. Who came in.
And meanwhile the rain, all day, all evening,
quiet steady sound. Before it grew too dark
I watched the blue iris leaning under the rain,
the flame of the poppies guttered and went out.
A voice. Almost recalled. There have been times
the gods entered. Entered a room, a cave?
A long enclosure where I was, the fourth wall of it
too distant or too dark to see. The birds are silent,
no moths at the lit windows. Only a swaying rosebush
pierces the table’s reflection, raindrops gazing from it.
There have been hands laid on my shoulders.
What has been said to me,
how has my life replied?
The rain, the rain….”[v]

 


[i] Selz, Peter; Alberto Giacometti; The Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Company; New York, New York; 1965; p. 62.

[ii] Levertov, Denise; “The Dog of Art,” Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1979; p. 118.

[iii] Lord, James; A Giacometti Portrait; The Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Company; New York, New York; 1968; p. 9.

[iv] Selz, Peter; Alberto Giacometti; The Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Company; New York, New York; 1965; pp. 56-57. Photo credit: Herbert Matter.

[v] Levertov, Denise; “The Rain,” Poems 1968-1972; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1987; p. 53.

THE DISASTERS OF WAR

war1
Francisco Goya
“Not in this case, Plate #36, The Disasters of War”
c. 1812/1815, published 1863
Etching, aquatint and drypoint
140 x 190 mm
The Art Institute of Chicago

“One cannot look at this.
This is bad.
This is how it happened.
This always happens.
There is no one to help them.
With or without reason.
He defends himself well.
He deserved it.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There was nothing to be done and he died.
What madness!
This is too much!
Why?
Nobody knows why.
Not in this case either.
This is worse.
Barbarians!
This is the absolute worst!
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.
Perhaps they are of another breed.
I saw it.
And this too.
Truth has died.
This is the truth.”[i]

In one of her late series of essays, Susan Sontag created a literary collage of sorts. The title of this piece is “Looking at the Unbearable” and is inspired by Goya’s series of “The Disasters of War.” In fact, it is a very straightforward listing of several titles of Goya’s prints as they were later annotated in pencil beneath each print!

Goya was inspired to work in this direction by the earlier artist Jacques Callot whose “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” was published in 1633 as a response to the French invasion of Lorraine during the Thirty Years War. From 1808 to 1814 it was the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, witnessed by Goya, that lead to “The Disasters of War.” Although separated by over 200 years, these two bodies of work, taken together, comprise some of the most powerful statements ever made against war. What does that mean for us now?

war2
Jacques Callot
“The Hanging: Number 11, The Miseries of War”
1631, published in 1633
Etching
8.1 x 18.6 cm.
Collection: The Art Gallery of New South Wales

Instant justice on the battlefield, or revenge and vigilante justice in small town America seemed to take no heed of past history and warnings. In Marion, Indiana for example, on 7 August 1930 the photographer Lawrence Beitler came upon a scene that just had to be documented. A mob of citizens had broken into the local jail and took two African American prisoners, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, out into the night, where they were lynched. This particular photograph became a symbol of the ongoing racial war and tensions within our country. Thousands of copies of it, both as post cards and posters were printed over the following few days and weeks.

war3
Lawrence Henry Beitler
“Marion Lynching”
1930
B&W Photograph
Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana

In 1937, Abel Meeropol saw a copy of this photograph and was inspired to write the poem “Bitter Fruit” along with the music that later became a labor/civil rights anthem titled “Strange Fruit.” Since then it has been recorded many times up to the present day, but the 1939 version by Billie Holiday became a classic.

One contemporary artist and musician in the greater Boston area, James Reitzas, found a way to voice this through sculpture. Using very simple materials, rope and sand and burlap, he fashioned units of human size and proportion and literally hung them from local trees. Mimicking and referring back to Billie Holiday’s signature song “Strange Fruit” and Callot’s and Goya’s prints, these pieces show the metaphorical power of materials. They also echo many of the songs written at the time in order to give voice to both the civil rights and anti-war movements: the early Bob Dylan masterpiece “Desolation Row” contains an opening line that was directly inspired from Beitler’s photograph.

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row.”[ii]

war4
James Reitzas
“Strange Fruit”
2000
Rope, sand and body bags
(Installation dimensions variable)
Boston, Massachusetts

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”[iii]

 


[i] Sontag, Susan; Regarding the Pain of Others; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2003; pp. 44-47.

[ii] Dylan, Bob; “Desolation Row,” Writings and Drawings; Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books; New York, New York; 1973; pp. 193-195.

[iii] Holiday, Billie; “Strange Fruit” The Centennial Collection; audio recording B00S7E1V7W; Sony Legacy; New York, New York; 2015.

IN HOTEL LOBBIES

“Edward Hopper’s art is highly provocative and often disturbing. His contemplative figures appear to be alienated from society and to occupy a world devoid of interaction and communication. They never smile or frown, and their attitudes and expressions suggest unapproachableness. These introspective figures convey an inner turmoil that can provide questions about relationships, the roles people play in society, and the meaning of life.”[i]

hopper
Edward Hopper
“Sketch for Hotel Lobby”
1943
Conte crayon and graphite on paper
8 7/16″ x 10 15/16″
Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

When studying several of Hopper’s sketches for this painting, it becomes clear that he was really searching, working out the space and placement for the lobby and the people inhabiting that space. Five or six different figures were placed in various positions within the composition, including one, a desk clerk, who is hidden in the background behind a lamp in the office. Figures of both men and women are substituted for each other in order to achieve the balance that he desired.

hardwick
D.W. Hardwick
“Study #2 from the Hotel Lobby”
1976
Graphite on paper
6″ x 8″
Private Collection, Indianapolis, Indiana

For many years of my teaching career, we would visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art and draw directly from the objects in their collection. There are several works by Edward Hopper housed there, including “American Landscape,” “New York, New Haven and Hartford” and the “Hotel Lobby” from 1943. Especially important in this learning process is to discover the underlying architecture of any work of art, not just the surface illusions. Two such examples are shown above and below this paragraph. Drawings made on the spot in the museum and showing both space and movement and the tonal juxtapositions that occur in the original. They were completed by Darryl W. Hardwick during the summer session of 1976.

hardwick2
D.W. Hardwick
“Study #1 from the Hotel Lobby”
1976
Graphite on paper
6″ x 8″
Private Collection, Indianapolis, Indiana

The poet Raymond Carver in his collection titled Ultramarine of 1987 took on a similar subject. Not directly written after this painting, the parallels however are so striking that one might do a double take. A quiet, perfectly still scene, with the various characters going about their daily routines. Structured and written to lead us into this particular space. Introspective, with the possibility of great turmoil.

“In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo”

“The girl in the lobby reading a leather-bound book.
The man in the lobby using a broom.
The boy in the lobby watering plants.
The desk clerk looking at his nails. The woman in the lobby writing a letter.
The old man in the lobby sleeping in his chair.
The fan in the lobby revolving slowly overhead.
Another hot Sunday afternoon.

Suddenly, the girl lays her finger between the pages of her book.
The man leans on his broom and looks.
The boy stops in his tracks.
The desk clerk raises his eyes and stares.
The woman quits writing.
The old man stirs and wakes up.
What is it?

Someone is running up from the harbor.
Someone who has the sun behind him.
Someone who is barechested.
Waving his arms.

It’s clear something terrible has happened.
The man is running straight for the hotel.
His lips are working themselves into a scream.

Everyone in the lobby will recall their terror.
Everyone will remember this moment for the rest of their lives.”[ii]

hopper2
Edward Hopper
“Hotel Lobby”
1943
Oil on canvas
32 1/4″ x 40 3/4″
Williams Ray Adams Memorial Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana

 

[i] Warkel, Harriet G.; Paint to Paper: Edward Hopper’s Hotel Lobby; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2008; p. 11.

[ii] Carver, Raymond; “In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo,” Ultramarine: Poems; Random House; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 75-76.

HAND TOOLS

dine-1
Jim Dine
“Untitled (Pliers)”
1973
Graphite, charcoal and crayon on paper
25 5/8″ x 19 3/4″
Museum of Modern Art, New York

“I love the tools made for mechanics. I stop at the windows of hardware stores. If I could only find an excuse to buy many more of them than I have already bought on the pretense that I might have use for them! They are so beautiful, so simple and plain and straight to their meaning. There is no ‘Art’ about them, they have not been made beautiful, they are beautiful.”

“Someone has defined a work of art as a ‘thing beautifully done.’ I like it better if we cut away the adverb and preserve the word ‘done,’ and let it stand alone in its fullest meaning. Things are not done beautifully. The beauty is an integral part of their being done.”[i]

dine-2
Jim Dine
“Untitled (Brace and Bit)”
1973
Graphite, charcoal and crayon on paper
25 5/8″ x 19 3/4″
Museum of Modern Art, New York

A wrench, a brace or a pair of pliers, along with pencils and brushes, are all literal extensions of the human hand. Metaphorically, as artists we also speak of finding our own hand, or discovering one’s touch. Poets speak of finding their own voice. This is often a difficult process, which takes a lot of work. To accomplish this work, we use the tools that are near at hand.

This idea has echoes both across and beyond our borders. Whether it might be the great simplicity in a Shaker building or chair, or the profound Japanese insight into beauty, the tools that allow us to produce the hand-made object are of utmost importance.

In his great treatise on craftsmanship and the making of certain objects, Soetsu Yanagi wrote that: “They are made without obsessive consciousness of beauty; thus we catch a glimpse of what is meant by ‘no-mindedness,’ whereby all things become simplified, natural, and without contrivance.”[ii]

Similarly, Faith and Edward Demming Andrews have observed the work and the laws of the Shakers:   “All beauty that has not a foundation in use, soon grows distasteful, and needs continual replacement with something new. That which has in itself the highest use possesses the greatest beauty.”[iii]

shaker-1
Richard Emery Nickolson
“Dwelling House Interior, Hancock Shaker Village”
Color photograph
1978
Hancock, Massachusetts

“The craftsmanship of the Shakers was an integral part of the life and thought of a humble but consecrated folk. They did not think of the work of their hands—in building, in joinery, in industrial pursuit of every kind—as an art, something special or exclusive, but rather as the right way of sustaining their church order, the ideal of a better society. For them the machine or tool was a ‘servant force.’ It was the purpose of work which was important. This led to a manner of work, which in turn gave a common character—an integrity, a harmony, a subtle but identifiable quality to all the labor of their hands.”[iv]

shaker-2
Richard Emery Nickolson
“Dwelling House Interior, Hancock Shaker Village”
Color photograph
1978
Hancock, Massachusetts

And in the end, it is a reminder to all artists that “The thing shines, not the maker.…and therefore whatever is made is lovely.”[v]


 

[i] Henri, Robert; The Art Spirit, Basic Books, New York, New York; 2007; p. 53.

[ii] Yanagi, Soetsu; The Unknown Craftsman; Kodansha International; Tokyo, New York and London; 1972 & 1989; p. 203.

[iii] Andrews, Edward Deming, and Faith Andrews; Religion in Wood: A Book of Shaker Furniture; Indiana University Press; Bloomington and London; 1966; p. 15.

[iv] Andrews, Edward Deming, and Faith Andrews; Religion in Wood: A Book of Shaker Furniture; p. 14.

[v] Yanagi, Soetsu; The Unknown Craftsman; p. 200.

DEAD BIRDS

“His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes”

“The early sixteenth-century Belgian painter called, for want of his real name, The Master of the Embroidered Leaf.

Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up the house after being away for three months.

Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies. Not all of them were great. But there were 104 of them.”[i]

deadbird1
Albert Pinkham Ryder
“Dead Bird”
1890’s
Oil on wood panel
4 3/8” x 10”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

This terrible but beautiful image of a dead bird has always been one of the most haunting paintings in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Just over four inches high it is an important example of works of art that are intimate in size and grand in spirit. Their effect remains with the viewer long after stepping outside of the museum.

Raymond Carver used this technique on several occasions in his work, especially in his collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Small statements, snippets really, are concise and to the point. 16th Century illuminations, dead birds on the front porch, or an incident involving Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington all incorporate the painterly criteria of ‘economy of means.’ Compression.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red and Pink Rocks with Teeth” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Jan Vermeer’s “Girl in the Red Hat” at the National Gallery in Washington and Ryder’s “Dead Bird” mentioned above are all small in size but powerful in scale. Why should this be? Perhaps it was the desire of certain figurative painters and Imagist poets for the significant detail: to rivet the universal with the particular. Or, the suggestion made several times by William Carlos Williams throughout his epic poem Patterson to “Say it! No ideas, but in things.”[ii]

Whether it was the search for an American idiom or a single image out of the mass of chaos, Williams would ask of us: “What common language to unravel?”[iii] For both the poet and the painter it would be the process of finding one’s own vision or voice coming out of “…a mass of detail to interrelate on a new ground…pulling the disparate together to clarify and compress.”[iv]

“Because the sun was behind them
their shadows came first and then
the birds themselves.”[v]

deadbird2
Susan Rothenberg
“Blue Bird Wings”
1989
Oil on canvas
65″x43″
Private collection

To make an image or an object one’s own is to have a signature that comes out of the process of creating that image. Idiosyncratic imagery, like that in Ryder’s painting, has been the trademark of a certain few artists: as in the work of Musa McKim or Leonard Baskin or Susan Rothenberg; Raymond Carver or Kim Fuelling or Michael Ondaatje. These images will speak for themselves, as any real painting or drawing or poem will.

deadbird3
Leonard Baskin
“Dead Bird”
c. 1950’s
Woodcut
1” x 2”
Michelson Galleries, Northampton, Massachusetts

“Through the Boughs”

“Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think, that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was, they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes. The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and won’t stop blowing. . . . Give me your hand for a time. Hold on to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was, those ragged birds cry.”[vi]

deadbird4
Kim Fuelling
“Fallen Bird”
c. 1998
Graphite on paper
8” x 10”
Courtesy of the artist, Zionville, North Carolina

“Application for a Driving License”

“Two birds loved
in a flurry of red feathers
like a burst cottonball,
continuing while I drove over them.

I am a good driver, nothing shocks me.”[vii]


[i] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes;” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; pp. 64-66.

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; p. 7.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; p. 9.

[iv] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; p. 19.

[v] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon, Selected Writings; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 137.

[vi] Carver, Raymond; “Through the Boughs;” A New Path to the Waterfall; p. 120.

[vii] Ondaatje, Michael; “Application for a Driving License;” The Cinnamon Peeler; Vintage International; New York, New York; 1997; p. 14.