THE MAN WHO SEES THROUGH STONE

“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
shining muscles

ears peeling his words
he smiles
he knows
the hunt the enemy
he has the secret eyes
he sees through stone.”[i]

stone1
Philip Guston
“Head”
1975
Oil on canvas
69 1/4” x 74 1/4”
Estate of Philip Guston

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.

stone2
Susan Rothenberg
“5 Eyes (study)”
1997
Oil on canvas
24 1/2” x 27”
Sperone Westwater, New York

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.

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