“She’s got everything she needs,
She’s an artist, she don’t look back.
She’s got everything she needs,
She’s an artist, she don’t look back.
She can take the dark out of the nighttime
And paint the daytime black.”1
We might be reminded of a couple songs on this subject: the first one written by Bob Dylan and the other by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Or, we might think of Goya’s late Pinturas Negras from 1819 to 1823; or two individual bodies of monochromatic abstractions produced by Ad Reinhardt and Louise Nevelson during the 1960’s. All incorporating the color black. Additionally, poets such as Robert Bly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Edward Hirsch have described various uses of this same color. Hirsch especially has commented on this in one of the essays in his larger collection titled The Demon and the Angel. He quotes a statement from the painter Robert Motherwell, and takes note that there are both physical and technical as well as psychological reasons for using this specific color.
“The New York painters discovered that they could use black pigments to create a feeling that was sometimes infernal, sometimes transcendent. They entered a zone of black hues that was both boldly contemporary and richly archaic. Black fit the spirit of urban painters who also embraced a Modernist Primitivism: ‘The chemistry of the pigments is interesting: ivory black, like bone black, is made from charred bones or horns, carbon black is burnt gas,’ Robert Motherwell explained in a catalog note to the 1950 show Black or White. ‘Sometimes I wonder, laying in a great black stripe on a canvas, what animal’s bones (or horns) are making the furrows of my picture.”3
In another collection, My Sentence was a Thousand Years of Joy, Robert Bly includes several examples of the ekphrastic tradition related to this subject. He speaks of Cézanne and Monet, as well as Giotto, Fra Lippi, Rembrandt, and especially Robert Motherwell.
For Robert Motherwell
“Hunter, give me your horse. I am going into sorrow again.
I’m looking for the dead people hidden in the grass.
Help me up. I am crazy about suffering again.
I see that I am walking in a dead man’s shoes.
I have been born so many times as an orphan. The thin fiddle
Strings stretched tight have saved me from suicide.
When Robert Motherwell lifts up his two black clouds
So that they float a few feet from each other,
I know grief is the one who tells me what to do.
The soul can never get enough of the taste of its sorrow.
I am a horse throwing his head sideways, galloping
Away from the place where the happy people live.
I don’t care anymore whether I am educated or not.
We have learned so much pain by not going to school.
Our lines suggest the luck lost between heartbeats.
We who love Motherwell’s black clouds may be insane,
But at least we know where to feed. We are close
Relatives of the birds that followed Jesus to Egypt.”4
As poets over the years, Robert Bly, Edward Hirsch, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti have all been interested in their contemporaries who were painters, as the above examples by Hirsch and Bly illustrate. In the example below, one of his late prose poems, Ferlinghetti writes about the many transformative processes that painters often go through, inspired by a certain painting by Motherwell.
The Painter’s Dilemma
“There they all were still, the unfinished canvasses, all chimeras, chiaroscuro illusions, dead stick figures still to be brought to real life, with their numbered pigments upon the canvas ground where formed the limbs the figures the faces of longing, yearning dogs and hungry horses’ heads among them, the skulls with ears, liquid porches, spilling light, onto the canvas, pools of it forming into shape of eyes, but as soon as they were formed they ran down with too much turpentine and ran onto the dark dogs and horses, and they turned into echoes of laughter with every mocking sound a different color echoing about the canvas and transfiguring all its painted parts, horses’ penises turned to yellow flutes that fitted to manifolds that fitted into female plumbing that in turn dissolved and floated down streets as yellow sunlight, while numbered shadows melted and percolated up into the gutters of tilted houses. Hunger and passion were what was needed but this got lost in the whirl of paint, in the depths of the cave that every canvas became, and the brush could not reach the boundaries of being inside Plato’s Cave.”5
These have been several observations pertaining to this one subject, which are shared by Robert Bly and Robert Motherwell, Edward Hirsch and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It is a specific theme and color range that occurs in various periods of art history. And in Rock ’n Roll. So it seems like some one should have the final word here. But it will come to this, shared by three writers and one painter: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Franz Kline for one of his great ‘black’ paintings, and last but not least: Robert Bly.
“I see a red door
And I want it painted black
No colors anymore
I want them to turn black. . . .”
“Maybe then, I’ll fade away
And not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up
When your whole world is black. . . .”
“I wanna see the sun
Blotted out from the sky
I wanna see it painted, painted, painted
Painted black. . . .”6
“Some people say
A painting is a pitcher full of the invisible.”7
“I don’t know why these poems keep veering off
1 Dylan, Bob; “She Belongs to Me” from Writings and Drawings; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; New York, New York; 1973; p.159.
2 In this installation photograph of the exhibition “Black or White” by Aaron Siskind, the works shown are from left to right: “Dark Pond” by Willem de Kooning, 1948; “Granada” by Robert Motherwell, 1948-1949; and “Germania II” by Hans Hofmann, 1950. Kootz Gallery, New York, New York, 1950.
3 Hirsch, Edward; The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration; Harcourt, Inc.; New York, San Diego and London; 2002; p. 183.
4 Bly Robert; My Sentence was a Thousand Years of Joy; Harper Perennial; New York, London, Toronto and Sydney; 2005; p. 59.
5 Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; When I Look at Pictures, Peregrine Smith Books; Salt Lake City, Utah; 1990; p. 46.
6 Jagger, Mick, & Keith Richards; Aftermath: Paint It Black; Audio Recording; Decca Records & RCA Studios; Los Angeles, California; 1966.
7 Bly Robert; My Sentence was a Thousand Years of Joy; Harper Perennial; New York, London, Toronto and Sydney; 2005; p. 13.
8 Bly Robert; My Sentence was a Thousand Years of Joy; Harper Perennial; New York, London, Toronto and Sydney; 2005; p. 85.