THE FLIGHT OF ICARUS!

matisse
Henri Matisse
“The Fall of Icarus”
1943
Gouache on paper cut out, collaged on canvas
35 x 26.5 cm
Private Collection

“‘I warn you,’ Daedalus had said, ‘not to fly so low that the mist or fog weighs down your wings, nor so high that the sun scorches you:  fly between the two!  Avoid too much heat and too much damp, too much dryness and too much cold.  Keep to the center of their wheel.  Don’t look at Bootes or Helice, or at Orion’s drawn sword.  Take me as your guide and follow!”

“But Icarus grows excited.  He forgets the advice.  Soon he masters the beating of his wings and swoops in wide, playful circles above the sea.  Does Minos see him laughing and dancing on the invisible crest of the world?  Like a swimmer, turning his back on the cries from shore, he is already far at sea.  He has tired of following his father’s shoulders, his snowy wings and shock of hair.  He enters into glory as into a garden, a garden of flames that surrounds him; and he breathes in.  ‘O Sun!  Father!’ he cries to the encircling fire.  Once more he kicks on the wind!  Again he beats his wings on the torrid wave of the wind!  Once more he thrusts up into the light!”[i]

We know of course, how this is going to end:  wings and wax melting, bursting into flames, and finally falling into the sea below.  Deadalus, the great engineer and inventor, who had constructed these devices for himself and his son, Icarus, had been imprisoned by King Minos in the very dungeon he had constructed for the Minitaur on orders from this king.

The excitement and enthusiasm of this young man overshadowed the warnings of his father, to stay the course.  It is an ancient moral tale from Ovid that has fascinated many generations of painters and poets:  from Pieter Breughel (both the Elder and the Younger) to Henri Matisse and from William Carlos Williams to Claude-Henri Rocquet.

Many years ago, in literature and composition classes in Baltimore we were  exposed to both classic and contemporary writers, especially Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders and Susan Sontag.  Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore were always mentioned as well, but William Carlos Williams was often sited only as a footnote.  Sometimes at night I would hit the library and find the new (at the time) two volume edition of Williams’ Collected Poems on the reserve shelf.  I read through the entire collection several times that semester.

I have read that Williams himself was aware of and frustrated by the lack of greater recognition his work was afforded at that time.  He continued to write nonetheless, and his last collection, “Pictures from Breughel” proved beyond a doubt his importance.  Three months after his death, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection.  His deep seeing, attention to detail and sensitivity towards Breughel’s work have continued to influence many younger painters and poets.

II    LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS

“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning”[ii]

matisse2
Pieter Bruegel
“La chute d’Icare”
Oil on panel
1562-1563
73.5 x 112 cm
Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

 


[i] Rocquet, Claude-Henri; Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1991.  (p. 122).

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” Pictures from Breughel; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 4.

INTO THE LIFE OF THINGS

“Nothing is hollow or waste to the imagination of Marianne Moore….For I don’t think there is a better poet writing in America today or one who touches so deftly so great a range of our thought….So that in looking at some apparently small object one feels the swirl of great events.”[i]

This is what William Carlos Williams wrote about his friend and colleague Marianne Moore in an article regarding her work for the Quarterly Review of Literature in 1948.  This particular issue of the Quarterly Review was published in honor of Miss Moore.

Marianne Moore was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1887 and lived most of her life there.  Miss Moore studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a professional librarian, with the other half of her career as a poet.  Along the way, she met and shared aesthetic interests with other fellow poets including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.  On a rare trip overseas to London and the British Museum with her mother in 1911 she discovered a small Egyptian blown glass sculpture in the form of a fish, which later became an important example of the ekphrastic tradition.  She has also written sensitively about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome and His Lion” and “Rodin’s Penseur.

ellen1
Ellen Fischer
“Kodak and Mirror”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

Ellen Fischer was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1956.  She studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has served as a curator at both the Greater Lafayette Museum of Art in Indiana and the Vero Beach Museum of Art in Florida.  The other half of her career over these years was of course as a studio artist.

These two could have been sisters, or distant cousins, perhaps not from the exact same family, but from across the spread of time.  They share several aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual traditions even though one was an Imagist poet and the other is a contemporary painter.  Both women have worked with great independence and determination.

On several occasions I have accompanied Ms. Fischer to art museums, galleries, antique stores and markets in Central Florida.  The same eyes that look so intensely at works of art are also used to search out a find or two at the local flea market or Goodwill Store.  Her juxtapositions are always surprising and provocative, bringing out the best in every object.

Quietly creating these still lives, flooding them with light and satire and curiosity, Ms. Fischer has assembled a body of work that speaks of human hands and activities. It is exactly what Miss Moore advocated when she mentioned how one object shouldn’t diminish or reduce another:  one thing being great because another is small.

ellen2
Ellen Fischer
“Hanging Machete”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

Although many of these objects are old and discarded, they are not, to my mind, nostalgic.  They are unusual in form and antique in the sense that they carry with them a certain history, or an untold story that may have already been lost, only now to be participants in a totally new story.

When I recently asked Ms. Fischer about her work and her selection of subjects, this was her response:

“YES, I see things at Goodwill and thrift stores and flea markets, and buy them.  I know right away that I have to have them, and that I will paint them.  The meat cleaver was purchased at the St. Vincent DePaul shop here in Vero.  Two friends were with me and I had nothing to buy. When they were checking out, I saw it in a case on the other side of the cash register and asked to see it.”

“Well, once something like that is in your hands you can’t let it go.  I paid way more for that cleaver than I usually spend on anything in the thrift store– $10.00!”

“I had done a few paintings with sharp objects in them, and wanted to do more.  The cleaver interested me as an object to paint. It did lie around the studio for a few months before I used it, but I never stopped thinking about it, in a general way.”

“It seemed natural to use the little Parian ware ‘Ma Kettle’ figure with it– she is holding an ax, you may have noticed, and has a pig at her side….And she was just the right size to hide behind the blade.”

ellen3
Ellen Fischer
“A Close Call”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Private collection Indianapolis)

“Always best when a still life comes together spontaneously.  I don’t think you can force objects to go together that don’t belong together, no matter how you juggle them.”

“Sometimes I have played around with objects, positioning them this way and that to see how they might work, but if it doesn’t happen within a reasonable amount of time, I keep the object I am most interested in painting on the table and try different objects with it.”

“I have to feel strongly about the objects in the first place to want to paint them.”[ii]

Because of her interest in various works of art, Marianne Moore was often questioned about her writing and collecting.  She struggled to defend the directness of her own work and to explain what she saw in the work of others, both poets and painters.  Finally having had enough, she made her own statement regarding what she indeed looked for.

Here is Miss Moore’s response regarding her collection of art and objects:

“When I Buy Pictures

or what is closer to the truth,
when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor,
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible
than the intensity of the mood;
or quite the opposite–the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-box,
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist of the hour-glass,
and deer and birds and seated people;
it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal biography perhaps,
in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse;
an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic in three parts;
the silver fence protecting Adam’s grave, or Michael taking Adam by the wrist.

ellen4
Ellen Fischer
“Bust with Palette Knife”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist)

Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one’s enjoyment.
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honored–
that which is great because something else is small.
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.”[iii]


 

[i] Williams, William Carlos; “Marianne Moore” Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. 292-294.

[ii] Fischer, Ellen; An artist’s statement regarding “Close Call” and other still life elements as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 21 June 2017.

[iii] Schulman, Grace, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking; New York, New York; 2003; p. 144.

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.