“Today he is hardly likely to find himself unless he is a non-conformist and a rebel. To say this is neither dangerous nor new. It is what society really expects of its artists. For today the artist has, whether he likes it or not, inherited the combined functions of hermit, pilgrim, prophet, priest, shaman, sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist, and bonze.”[i]
This is what Thomas Merton had to say about contemporary artists and writers. He had multiple points of view regarding this position: as a poet himself, as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Lexington, Kentucky, as a student of calligraphy and as a colleague and friend to others in the field, including Ad Reinhart, John Cage, D. T. Suzuki and Jacques Maritain.
In the beginning years of the 20th century Henri Matisse began thinking and writing about the importance of signs. He saw this especially in the pen and ink drawings of Vincent van Gogh, which were an early influence on him, as well as in certain examples of calligraphy from Oriental art.
In these same years the poet Ezra Pound was sent a manuscript that had been written by the scholar Ernest Fenollosa who had been studying the origins of the Japanese and Chinese alphabets, whose characters had originally been drawings!
“Chinese poetry has the unique advantage of combining both elements. It speaks at once with the vividness of painting, and with the mobility of sounds.”[ii]
Ezra Pound called this the ‘ideogramic method’ and used what he had learned from Fenollosa to define and clarify the quality known as ‘economy of means’ that is so important to both painters and poets. This also led directly to the invention of ‘Imagist Poetry’ that is characterized by clarity and directness.
In letters and conversations with Louis Aragon throughout his lifetime Henri Matisse often explained that: “The sign is determined at the moment I use it and for the object of which it must form a part. For this reason I cannot determine in advance signs which never change and which would be like writing: that would paralyze the freedom of my invention.”[iv]
Aragon helped to ‘translate’ many of Matisse’s statements, paintings and drawings, into literature through his essay ‘Matisse en France’ from 1942-43 and the two volume ‘Matisse: A Novel’ from 1972.
Similar concerns can be seen in the works of Henri Michaux working in Paris and Thomas Merton working in Lexington, Kentucky. They were both interested in painting and poetry, through which they each investigated the use of signs.
“To abstract means to free oneself, to come disentangled.”
“The hand should be empty, should in no way hinder what’s flowing into it.”
“Only the ‘exact placement,’ the ‘just proportion’ matter.”[v]
More recently, in an interview with Janie C. Lee at the Whitney Museum of American Art on 21 May 1998, Brice Marden described some of his work in the “St. Bart’s 1985-86 Series” in this way: “The whole history of the life is right there on the surface. These drawings were all started as individual sheets in a book. Then I took the book apart and started putting them together in different sequences. Some I reworked, putting two sheets on
each page . . . . Top to bottom and across to the left. I was following the Chinese calligraphic method. It was easier for me because I’m left handed, so if I work from right to left, I don’t run the chance of smudging the ink or some marking. These were very early calligraphy-based drawings.”[vi]
The effects of Matisse’s experiments along with Fenollosa’s observations have been wide ranging: from the paintings of Henri Michaux to the calligraphies of Thomas Merton, to Brice Marden’s recent drawings and even to a few of my own students over the years, especially the work of Rene Gonzalez.
“Yes, I remember these drawings very well…they were an automatic drawing series. I had been studying a lot of Motherwell at that time and watched a documentary on his Reconciliation Elegy work. In it, he described a process where he would sit down with a stack of paper and ink and a brush and just knock out gestures with no edits or reworks. He could then look at 50 to 100 drawings on the floor and begin to select the ones he wanted to investigate further. The series of drawings I did went through a similar process and only a few were then selected as the actual compositions to my paintings. I believe they were either 8 1/2 x 11 or smaller but I do not remember.”[vii]
“The freedom of the artist is to be sought precisely in the choice of his work and not in the choice of the role as ‘artist’ which society asks him to play.”[viii]
[i] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton; New Seeds Publishing; Boston & London; 2006; p. 100.
[ii] Fenollosa, Ernest and Ezra Pound, ed.; The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1936; p. 9.
[iii] This example has been published in both Fenollosa (p. 8) and Michaux (p. 43). It shows three characters, all containing legs. To the right the ideogram for ‘horse’ with four legs underneath. In the center is an ‘eye’ being carried by two legs. And on the left the image of a man. As both authors explain, these images taken together produce the line: “man sees horse.”
[iv] Schneider, Pierre; Matisse; Rizzoli International; New York, New York; 1984 and 2002; p. 576.
[v] Michaud, Henri; translated by Gustaf Sobin; Henri Michaux: Ideograms in China; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1975; (unpaginated).
[vi] Lee, Janie C.; Brice Marden Drawings; The Whitney Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1998; p. 19.
[vii] From E-MAIL communications between the artist and this writer on 14 January and 27 January 2017.
[viii] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton; p. 100.
[ix] This last example is taken from Fenollosa (p. 40). It shows a ‘mouth’ on the lower right with words and tongue coming out of it. On the left is the figure of a ‘man.’ Taken together, they form the sign: “a man standing beside his word, truth.”