“This is harder than counting stones along paths going nowhere….” is how Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “The Dead at Quang Tri”[i] opens. It closes with the line “…the grass we walk on won’t stay down.”
This reminds me of the observation that Tim O’Brien made in one chapter of The Things They Carried when his platoon was being led to safety by an old man “…who had a tight rope walker’s feel for the land…” beneath his feet.[ii] This ‘papasan’ led them out of the jungle for five days through booby-trapped rice paddies, with no casualties during the entire trip.
I first heard Yusef Komunnyakaa read at the Indianapolis Art Centre in conjunction with “The Art of Combat: Artists and the Viet Nam War, Then and Now Exhibition,” 10 November 2000. Heard him speak three more times at the Butler University Visiting Writers Series and met him again during an opening at Snyderman/The Works Gallery in Philadelphia, on 7 September 2001.
Yusef’s voice as a writer comes out of the rhythm of both jazz and street language and a bit of South East Asian pidgen language. “Dien cai dau” was the local term used to describe a crazy person, but combined with “beaucoup” it meant a “really” crazy person. Like American soldiers.
Many of the local people, including the Buddhist monks, were often caught right in the middle: they wanted peace but both warring sides would squeeze them out leaving them no place and sometimes no alternative. No chance of walking anywhere on this earth. It was one certain Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, who called the world’s attention to this growing frustration.
“When the motorcade rolled to a halt, Quang Duc
climbed out & sat down in the street.
He crossed his legs,
& the other monks & nuns grew around him like petals.
He challenged the morning sun,
debating with the air
he leafed through—visions brought him down to earth.
Could his eyes burn the devil out of men?
A breath of peppermint oil
soothed someone’s cry. Beyond terror made flesh—
he burned like a bundle of black joss sticks.
A high wind that started in California
fanned flames, turned each blue page,
leaving only his heart intact.
Waves of saffron robes bowed to the gasoline can.”[iii]
[i] Komunyakaa, Yusef; Dien Cai Dau; Wesleyan University Press; Middletown, Connecticut; 1988; p. 12.
[ii] O’Brien, Tim; The Things They Carried; Broadway Books; New York, New York; 1990; p. 33.
“He sees through stone
he has the secret
eyes this old black one
who under prison skies
sits pressed by the sun
against the western wall
his pipe between purple gums
the years fall
like overripe plums
bursting red flesh
on the dark earth
his time is not my time
but I have known him
in a time gone
he led me trembling cold
into the dark forest
taught me the secret rites
to make it with a woman
to be true to my brothers
to make my spear drink
the blood of my enemies
now black cats circle him
flash white teeth
snarl at the air
mashing green grass beneath
ears peeling his words
the hunt the enemy
he has the secret eyes
he sees through stone.”[i]
Bad painting and badass poetry! In street language it could be simultaneously an insult and a compliment. In either case, both Philip Guston and Etheridge Knight would wear these descriptions proudly. These two changed the way we see painting and poetry with straightforward, brutal imagery.
Rejecting his past lyrical abstractions for a newly found figuration, Philip Guston’s solo exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970 was met with shock and derision by many fellow artists and critics. Robert Storr noted the great cry from critics at that time: Hilton Kramer writing in the New York Times accused Guston of being a “Mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum.”[ii] However, the doors that he single handedly opened allowed many younger artists to explore a greater range of ideas and imagery. Neil Jenney, Eric Fischl, Susan Rothenberg, and Elizabeth Murray were all clearly influenced by Guston’s late work.
Etheridge Knight’s first book Poems from Prison was published in 1968, one year before he was released from the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. He caught everyone off guard, but he did receive support from a great range of more established writers, including Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Bly. Knight later established himself through readings and lectures and by offering a series of Free People’s Poetry Workshops in several cities including Minneapolis, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis.
The artists associated with both the New Image and Bad Painting movements have clearly benefited from Guston’s work, as well as a new generation of artists mostly living and working in isolation nowadays. Some of these younger artists include Dane Patterson, Jacqueline Lou Skaggs, David B. Frye, Jason Cole Major, Carla Knopp, Steve Paddack and Christie Blizard. Knight’s influence was also strong on poets and painters living in Indianapolis, especially on Francy and Steven Stoller.
“The artist is encouraged to speak only of the beautiful (himself and what he sees); his take is to edify the listener, to make him see beauty of the world. And this is the trick bag that Black Artist must avoid, because the red of this aesthetic rose got its color from the blood of black slaves, exterminated Indians, napalmed Vietnamese children, etc., ad nauseum.”[iii]
“The act of painting is like a trial where all the roles are lived by one person. It’s as if the painting has to prove its right to exist. There are enough paintings in the world. Life and art have a mutual contempt and necessity for each other.”[iv]
[i] Knight, Etheridge; “He Sees through Stone;” The Essential Etheridge Knight; University of Pittsburgh Press; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; 1986; p. 10.
[ii] Storr, Robert; Philip Guston; Abbeville Press; New York, New York; 1986; p. 49.
[iii] Knight, Etheridge; “Writers Symposium,” Negro Digest; Vol. XVII, No. 3, January 1968; Johnson Publishing Company; Chicago, Illinois; p. 38.
[iv] Corbett, William; Philip Guston’s Late Work: A Memoir; Zoland Books; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 11.
The cataloguing team was walking back from lunch. Titus stopped in the west cloister and looked up at the windows of the Dutch Room. ‘I didn’t know there was a concert up there this afternoon.’
‘Concert?’ said Aurora, frowning. ‘What concert?’
‘Don’t you hear it?’ said Polly. ‘It’s nice. Really nice.’
‘But it’s Wednesday,’ said Aurora. ‘Concerts are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.’
‘Maybe we’d better take a look,’ said Titus. With Polly at his heels, he hurried up the stairs.
‘Don’t be silly, Titus,’ Aurora called after them. ‘There isn’t any music. I don’t hear a thing.’
“But as Titus and Polly reached the top of the stairs, it was plainly audible to both of them, plangent notes from some sort of harpsichord, a threadlike soprano voice running softly down a scale to the plucked accompaniment of a guitar.
‘It’s probably for some special visit,’ said Titus, striding along the corridor. ‘I didn’t know one was scheduled for today. I must have forgotten.’
But there was no trio of musicians in the Dutch Room, no milling throng of polite guests. And the music had stopped.’”[i]
This is how the writer Jane Langton described one of a series of strange events occurring in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Later, music would also be heard coming from the Early Italian Room, from the Spanish Cloister, and finally from the Chinese Loggia. A “sympathetic displacement of noises” it was suggested.[ii] All of this and other strange happenings, including a murder, occurred in her fictional account of this museum in Boston.
One of the first major purchases by Isabella Stewart Gardner for her collection was Johann Vermeer’s “The Concert.” She accomplished this at an auction in Paris in 1892 and it later became one of the highlights of this important and personal collection.
Unfortunately, we know of it today as one of the 13 pieces that were stolen from the Gardner by intruders dressed in security guard’s uniforms in 1990 and never recovered. The placement of objects throughout the museum is strictly enforced and the current empty frames illustrate the absence of these treasures.
This might remind us of a similar mystery occurring 56 years earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic. A bungling Dutch constabulary spent the evening looking closer at a theft in a cheese shop than he did at another theft that had occurred in the cathedral directly across the street.[iii] It was the theft of the “Just Judges” panel and only the most recent of several incidents throughout history involving the “Ghent Altarpiece” by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
In the panel of the “Just Judges” from the lower left hand corner of the altarpiece, we see all of the figures facing toward the center of the painting. There are several identifiable portraits amongst the riders: Jan van Eyck himself, his brother Hubert, and one of their patrons, Phillip the Good. They are a set of contemporary portraits of Netherlandish nobles in the roles of Old Testament figures including Philip the Bold in disguise as King Solomon. Sharing a pilgrimage, they form a cadre representing the most honest and just citizens.
These “Judges” show up later in history and mystery when they come to play a part in the novel The Fall by Albert Camus published in 1956. A former Parisian lawyer now holds court, so to speak, in a seedy bar in Amsterdam just after World War II. He has assumed the role of a ‘judge penitent’ of the contemporary world.
We are sitting in the café Mexico City, when this stranger intervenes with the bartender on our behalf in ordering the correct gin. It is Jean-Baptiste Clamence and he goes on to fill in some of the history of the bartender and the interior of this place. “Notice, for instance, on the back wall above his head that empty rectangle marking the place where a picture has been taken down. Indeed, there was a picture there, and a particularly interesting one, a real masterpiece.”[v]
“Yet if you read the papers, you would recall the theft in 1934 in the St. Bavon Cathedral of Ghent, of one of the panels of the famous van Eyck altarpiece, ‘The Adoration of the Lamb.’ That panel was called ‘The Just Judges.’ It represented judges on horseback coming to adore the sacred animal. It was replaced by an excellent copy, for the original was never found. Well, here it is. No, I had nothing to do with it.”[vi]
“False judges are held up to the world’s admiration and I alone know the true ones.”[vii]
Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigations should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617.278.5114 or email@example.com; or ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, www.artcrime.info; or INTERPOL, General Secretariat, 200 quai Charles de Gaulle, 69006 Lyon, France, E-mail: Contact INTERPOL.
[i] Langton, Jane; Murder at the Gardner; Penguin Books; New York, New York; 1988; p. 81.
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]
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.
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.”
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.
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.
[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.
“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]
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.
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;
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.
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]
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.
“It’s me. One day I saw myself in the street just like that. I was the dog.”[i]
“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.
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]
“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.
“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.
This is too much!
Nobody knows why.
Not in this case either.
This is worse.
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?
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.
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]
“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.