MUSA MCKIM AND RAYMOND CARVER: MODERN DETAILS

Somehow in the course of events we have been led to believe that the ‘modern’ has come to mean only formalist abstraction and minimalism.  A smaller and smaller world defined by a very tight description.  There are however, several important modern writers and artists who have paid special attention to the details of modern life, seeing in them the larger world and how these details might speak to us. 

SUNDAY NIGHT
“Make use of the things around you. 
This light rain
Outside the window, for one. 
This cigarette between my fingers,
These feet on the couch. 
The faint sound of rock-and-roll,
The red Ferrari in my head. 
The woman bumping
Drunkenly around the kitchen . . .
Put it all in,
Make use.”[i]

“Don’t forget when the phone was off the hook
all day, every day.”[ii]   

“When, at 12:24, I look at the clock that isn’t running and it tells
the same time as the clock that is”[iii]   

As we read the above observations, both Musa McKim and Raymond Carver look directly at the world surrounding us:  a telephone lying off its hook, a broken alarm clock, a bag of sugar, or just the sun creating a glare on a sheet of white paper.  Many of the same things that would catch the eye of an artist.  The abstract form and shape of a grand piano, or the abstracted movement of a bird in space.  All are examples of minimal imagery with maximum power that both poets and painters would employ.

Brancusi’s sculpture, straight out of a folk tradition, but unrecognzable to the Parisian elite, later became the sophisticated form that synthesized beauty, abstraction and content.  There is the catch:  abstraction and content.  At first no one saw Brancusi’s pieces as birds, neither in space nor in flight.  Today, however, they have become a symbol of just that. 

Constantin Brancusi
“Bird in Space”
1928
Bronze
54” x 8 ½” x 6 ½”
Collection:  Museum of Modern Art, New York

Not unlike the sculpture of Brancusi, the orchestral pieces of Igor Stravinsky synthesized classical music with jazz, folk and even the primal. Traditional painting had also gone through a similar synthesis of realism, cubism and pure plastic painting. 

Arnold Newman
“Igor Stravinsky, New York City”
1946
Black & White Photograph
12 1/16” x 22 5/16”
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

In the 1950’s and 60’s many young art students were taught by American abstract artists.  Process and abstraction formed the content of most of the work at that time.  But later, outside of academia, these artists were also confronted by the dilemma of what to do now?  They were well versed in process, but struggled to find content.  One artist however, set the  most impressive example.  Philip Guston at his Marlborough show in 1970  envisioned the end of one aspect of this process, and opened the gates and possibilities to new forms of imagery.  Making use of the things around him. 

By looking at certain details occurring in the world he single handedly opened the doors for himself, for poets, and later artists to come.  These included Clarke Coolidge, Musa McKim, Raymond Carver, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg and more.

“I thought I would never write anything down again.  Then I put on my cold wristwatch.”[iv] 

Philip Guston in collaboration with Musa McKim
“I thought I would never write anything down again.”
(UNDATED)
Pen & ink drawing on paper
19” x 24”
The Estate of Musa Guston

In the mid 1960’s Robert Moskowitz produced a series of small paintings of a simple corner of a room.  Quiet, minimal, very abstract and infused with a new sense of content and space.  Where the simplest shape or form of a thing could clearly speak. 

He would later take this process, including both personal and universal images, and juxtapose them in subtle but provacotive ways.  A corner of the Flatiron Building, or the tops of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Towers, for example.  A simplified assortment of visual images, not unlike the sparse and provacotive language used by Raymond Carver and Musa McKim.

Robert Moskowitz
“Untitled (Empire State)”
1980 
Graphite and pastel on paper
106” x 31 1/4”
Collection:  Mr. and Mrs. Robert K. Hoffman,
Dallas, Texas

“Talking about her brother Morris, Tess said: 
‘The night always catches him.  He never
believes it’s coming.’”[v]     

“When on TV I see my sister in a bit part in an old movie”[vi]   

“Three men and a woman in wet suits.  The door to their motel room is open and they are watching TV.”[vii]     

“And below in the street they are rattling the Coca-Cola bottles”[viii] 

Robert Moskowitz
“Painting (For Duke Ellington)”
1977
Oil on canvas
90” x 75”
Collection of Mary and Jim Parton, Great Falls, Virginia

His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes
“Duke Ellington riding in the back of his limo, somewhere
in Indiana.  He is reading by lamplight.  Billy Strayhorn
is with him, but asleep.  The tires hiss on the pavement. 
The Duke goes on reading and turning the pages.”[ix]


[i] Carver, Raymond; “Sunday Night,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 53.

[ii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.

[iii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.

[iv] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 121.

[v] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 64.

[vi] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.

[vii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 65.

[viii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.

[ix] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.

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.

EXPHRASTICS

“Someone, I tell you, in another time,
will remember us.”[i]

Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek: a description of a work of art, either real or imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise; often used in the adjectival form, ekphrastic, a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art.

keats
John Keats
“Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase”
1819
Ink on paper
The Louvre, Paris, France

From ancient times to the 20th century there has been an interdisciplinary dance played out between poets and painters. The idea of writing a poem or a play that was descriptive of, or inspired by a work of visual art was in fact invented by the Greeks. Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles in the 18th Book of The Illiad being one of the first examples.

“Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield;
Rich various artifice emblazed the field;
Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound;
A silver chain suspends the massy round;
Five ample plates the broad expanse compose,
And godlike labours on the surface rose.
There shone the image of the master-mind:
There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d;
The unwearied sun, the moon completely round;
The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d;
The Pleiads, Hyads, with the northern team;
And great Orion’s more refulgent beam;
To which, around the axle of the sky,
The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye,
Still shines exalted on the ethereal plain,
Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.”[ii]

This was of course, a literary fiction based totally on a plastic fiction, made real through the art of storytelling. The Romantic poet John Keats harks back to classic examples with his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Published anonymously in the January 1820, Number 15 issue of the magazine “Annals of the Fine Arts” it is an elegaic description on this single object. Early speculation centered around the fact that Keats had based his poem on a specific vase, either “The Sosibios Vase” at the Louvre in Paris or later on “The Townley Urn” at the British Museum in London. Nowadays it is considered that his work is more of a synthesis of several objects.

townley
“The Townley Urn”
100-200AD
Marble
H:1.06 metres
The British Museum, London

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[iii]

Keats ends his poem with an observation that has become an everlasting philosophical debate: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” From artists’ arguments in cafes and bars to doctoral dissertation defenses, it has become an ongoing discussion. Whether writing directly from a work of art as the primary source, as Keats has done, or inventing an image and then writing about it, this form of inspiration flows directly from the visual artist to the writer. In some more recent cases the artist seizes upon an image written by a poet and then makes a drawing or painting.

Near the end of his life, the 20th century abstract painter Philip Guston chose an entire new direction for his work, seeming to reject everything he had created before. He got himself hated by many former friends, but not everyone. Younger poets and painters recognized this new figuration, not as a retreat back into a mimetic mode, but as a venture into a new plastic and literary arena. His late drawings and paintings are a rare example of real dialogue between one painter and several contemporary poets. These poets included: Clark Coolidge, Bill Bergson, Musa McKim, Anne Waldman, William Corbett, Frank O’Hara and Stanley Kunitz.

guston
Philip Guston
“Untitled (Book)”
1968
Goache on paper board
51 cm x 76 cm
Estate of the artist

A generation later, young painters who had studied exclusively with abstract artists in school struggled to find their own voices and visions. It seemed like a dead end to continue without a subject, or subject matter. At first they were accused of producing ‘bad’ painting. With a few more artists testing these waters they became known as ‘New Image’ painters and even ‘neo-expressionists.’ Amongst these artists were: Susan Rothenberg, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray and Neil Jenney. All were working, in no small part, thanks to the doors that Philip Guston had opened.

“Henceforth a painting was a legible record of all the decisions, whether tentative or assured, that went into its conception and realization. The issue was not one of speed . . . but rather one of the immediacy and responsiveness of process, the simultaneity of thinking and making.”
Philip Guston [iv]


 

[i] Sappho; “No Oblivion,” The Complete Poems of Sappho (translated by Willis Barnstone); Shambala Publications; Boston & London; 2011; [147].

[ii] Translated by Alexander Pope. This poem is in the public domain.

[iii] Keats, John; John Keats: The Major Works; Oxford University Press; Oxford & New York; 1990 & 2001; pp. 288-289.

[iv] Storr, Robert; Philip Guston; Abbeville Press; New York, New York; 1986; p. 25.