IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN:  CHARLES SHEELER AND WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

“We looked upon the French with a certain amount of awe because we thought they had secrets about art and literature which we might gain.  We were anxious to learn, and yet we were repelled too.  There was a little resentment in us against all the success of the French.  The time had come for us to talk on our own terms.  We felt this.”[i]

Charles Sheeler
“Buttresses, Chartres Cathedral”
1929
Gelatin silver print
9 5/8” x 7 9/16”
Gift of the artist
Museum of Modern Art, New York

“Even though I have so profound an admiration for the beauty of Chartres, I realize strongly that it belongs to a culture, a tradition, a people of which I am not a part….It seems to be a persistent necessity for me to feel a sense of derivation from the country in which I live and work.”[ii] 

Here are two important statements by 20th Century Americans:  the first from William Carlos Williams and the second from Charles Sheeler.  They became friends almost immediately after meeting for the first time and remained so for years to follow.  Sheeler was concerned as a painter and photographer with discovering an American vision and a local, immediate subject matter.  Williams, in his search for a poetic voice and an American idiom in his writing, incorporated everyday subjects and images, always insisting to ‘say it, no ideas but in things!’[iii]

In her early book on Charles Sheeler, Constance Rourke noticed the mutual interest in painting and poetry and the personal affection that had been established between the painter Charles Sheeler and the poet William Carlos Williams.  They travelled in some of the same social and aesthetic circles:  in Philadelphia within the Louise and Walter Arensberg family of influence, and New York, both were included in the circle built around the Steiglitz Group, which also included the artists Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth. 

Elizabeth Black Carmer
“William Carlos Williams, Charles Sheeler and
Carl Carmer at the Carmer’s Octagon House”
1961
B&W photograph
26” x 21”
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC.

“A new intercommunication between artists and writers had begun of which this lasting friendship was a symbol.  Williams, Wallace Stevens, and a few other ‘new’ poets had read some of their work at one of the Independents exhibitions.  Some of Sheeler’s drawings and photographs were reproduced in Broom. . . . Each group was tending more often to look at the work of the other, to consider it, stay with it, give it the warmth of immediate discussion.  Exchanges of ideas were taking place that might not be reflected directly in either painting or writing but could provide something in the way of a generative force for both.”[iv]

And here is one of Williams’ early observations regarding Sheeler’s work:  “Romance, decoration, fullness—are lost in touch, sight, a word, to bite an apple.  Henry Ford has asked Chas. Sheeler to go to Detroit and photograph everything.  Carte blanche.  Sheeler!  That’s rich. . . .”[v]

Charles Sheeler
“River Rouge Plant”
1932
Oil on canvas
20” x 24 1/8”
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Sheeler, in his capacity as a professional photographer, worked for several publications in the Conde Nast Group, as well as documenting the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Arensburg family private collection.  Williams also knew of the Arensburg circle of artists, realists and surrealists amongst them, and of the importance of the local avant-garde.  These are interesting parallels in their lives and activities.  Today however, writers and artists often see this as the glorification of the industrial object, or as nostalgia, or realism so real, that it becomes surreal. 

Charles Sheeler
“Rolling Power”
1939
Oil on canvas
15 “ x 30”
Smith College Museum of Art
Northampton, Massachusetts

The Descent of Winter 10/30

“To freight cars in the air
all the slow
         clank, clank
         clank, clank
moving above the treetops

the
         wha,   wha
of the horse whistle

         pah,   pah,   pah
         pah,   pah,   pah,   pah,   pah

         piece and piece
         piece and piece
moving still trippingly
through the morningmist

long after the engine
has fought by
                           and disappeared
in silence
                  to the left”[vi] 

Sheeler took great advantage of his many photographic essay commissions not just to document industrial sites in the East and the Mid-West, but to also collect valuable images for his own studio work in both drawing and painting.  Variations on many of these themes appeared in his work throughout his lifetime and they have continued to provide inspiration for several artists in younger generations.   

Charles Sheeler
“Criss-Crossed Conveyors—Ford Plant ”
1927
B&W Photograph
The William H. Lane Collection,
Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Massachusetts

Contemporary painters such as Donald Sultan and Robert Moskowitz have benefitted from this insight that is contained in Sheeler’s work:  an intense perception of the man-made environment and landscape.  Recent curators and art historians have also noticed this, especially those writing about the Industrial Sublime[vii] and Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine.[viii]   It is an ongoing aesthetic.          

Donald Sultan
“Veracruz, November 18, 1986”
1986
Latex and tar on tile over Masonite
Matthew and Iris Strauss Collection,
Rancho Santa Fe, California

“A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.  When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant. . . . Its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.  Therefore, each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form.  The effect is beauty, what in a single object resolves our complex feelings of propriety. . . .”

Charles Sheeler
“Stacks in Celebration”
1954
Oil on canvas
22” x 28”
Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio

“When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses.  It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”[ix]

Robert Moskowitz
“Stack”
2000
Pastel on paper
50 5/8” x 22 1/2”
Lawrence Markey Inc.,
San Antonio, Texas


[i] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 49.

[ii] Tsujimoto, Karen; Images of America:  Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of Washington Press; Seattle & London; 1982; p. 85.  (Statement made by Sheeler on his series of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, originally published in Constance Rourke; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; New York, New York; Harcourt, Brace; 1938; p. 130).

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1946 & 1992; p. 6.

[iv] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 50.

[v] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253. 

[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 246.

[vii] Botwinick, Michael, et al; Industrial sublime; Empire State Editions, Fordham University Press; Yonkers, New York; 2014.

[viii] Lucic, Karen; Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine; Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1991.

[ix] Williams, William Carlos; I Wanted to Write a Poem:  The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet; (Edited by Edith Heal); New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1978; pp. 78-79.

ASPHODEL, THAT GREENY FLOWER

As an extended reflection on the artist’s life and family history, his marriage, and with several references to other artists, William Carlos Williams chose to include this great poem at the very end of his last collection, Pictures from Brueghel and other poems, published in 1962.  It is sometimes referred to as the world’s darkest love poem. 

In the past, whenever I read “Asphodel” I had always thought of it as a written piece of surrealism:  an author speaking to his contemporaries while walking through a strange landscape.  He often mentions his wife Flossie and their friend Charlie Demuth, as well as other artists such as Goya and Cezanne.  Today, when I re-read these lines, I associate them with more contemporary artists, especially Alfred Leslie and Laurie Gatlin. 

I used to see certain paintings by Leslie at Allen Frumkin’s galleries in both Chicago and New York.  I would often make a connection to certain other events or stories.  With this one in particular, “7:00 AM News” I would always go right back to Williams and his observations regarding dreaded poetry and the news.  

“It is difficult to get the news from poems….”[i]

Alfred Leslie
“7:00 AM News”
1976
Oil on canvas
84” x 60”
Allan Frumkin Gallery, New York

Then there is that strange visual juxtaposition of flowers actually blooming in hell.  Totally surreal and I cannot help but think of the artist’s post card series created by Laurie Gatlin during the mid 1990’s.

I have recently re-discovered several of Dr. Gatlin’s post cards from this series, especially the ones quoting Dr. Williams and the Asphodel.  When I asked her about them, this is what she had to say: 

“I love that poem. I like the way it meanders through memory, and balances both loss and sorrow and love.  I started that postcard project when I was living alone for the first time – I got married young and never lived on my own – I went from my parents house to my husband’s house, and then we had a house with children, a noisy house, and when I separated from him and moved into my own apartment, I was both happy with the ability to be alone and also terribly lonely.  It’s hard to make that adjustment, and the way I coped was to reach out with my postcards. . . . So there were a lot of things in that poem that resonated with me, and re-reading it again today, I am more struck by the sense of looking back over a life lived. . . .” 

Laurie Gatlin
“Flowers in Hell”
1995
5 1/2” x 3 1/2”
Collage and acrylic medium on post card
Private collection, Indianapolis

“One of the things that strikes me about William Carlos Williams is the sense of rhythm in his works – not structured with regular meter, but it reads to me very much like a metered poem.  There’s also the sense of distance in most of his poems – a sense of standing apart, and I think that appeals to me. Of Asphodel is actually pretty personal as it speaks about his relationship with his wife, but so much of it is also observational and distant.  I think I appreciated both of those aspects at the time as well – the meter and the sense of distance/personal relationship.”[ii]

I have always agreed with these observations from Laurie Gatlin and I share her understanding of Williams’ poem and its meanings.  However, during all of this time I missed a crucial detail of what Williams was trying to say.  Only recently have I discovered classical references to this greeny flower.  In fact, Homer mentions this in several passages of The Odyssey.  While exploring Hades at the direction of Circe in order to consult the prophet Tiresias, Odysseus had met and talked with Achilles’ ghost and Minos, as well as Agamemnon, his own dead mother Autolycus, and of course Tiresias hinself.  He had been sent by Circe in order to question his former crew regarding the events wherein he was lost at sea and these mates had been killed.  All the while, during this visit, he noticed that there were fields and meadows of asphodels growing there.   

“Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                  like a buttercup
                                    upon its branching stem—
save that it’s green and wooden—
                  I come, my sweet,
                                    to sing to you. 
We lived long together
                  a life filled,
                                    if you will,
with flowers.  So that
                  I was cheered
                                    when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
                  in hell.”[iii]

It turned out that Circe had instructed Odysseus two different times to travel to Hades for advice and guidance from his brothers in arms and from Tiresias. When he told Achilles that his son was actually still alive and had brought honor to his family, the ghost was overjoyed:    

“…after I told him this, Achilles’ ghost
took great swift-footed strides across the fields
of asphodel, delighted to have heard
about the glorious prowess of his son.”[iv]      

During these explorations Odysseus met and talked with many of the inhabitants of the underworld.  Whilst he was seeking to learn the routes out in order to return to Ithaca, his comrades in the underworld were seeking news of the outside world and they rushed to find any news that they could. 

“On open roads they crossed the Ocean stream,
went past the rock of Leucas and the gates
of Helius the Sun, and skittered through
the provinces of dreams, and soon arrived
in fields of asphodel, the home of shadows
who have been worn to weariness by life.”[v] 

Asphodel, That Greeny Flower
“Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                  I come, my sweet,
                                    to sing to you!
My heart rouses
                  thinking to bring you news
                                    of something
that concerns you
                  and concerns many men.  Look at
                                    what passes for the new. 
You will not find it there but in
                  despised poems. 
                                    It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                  yet men die miserably every day
                                    for lack
of what is found there.”[vi]

Laurie Gatlin
“It is difficult to get the news”
1995
5 1/2” x 3 1/2”
Collage and acrylic medium on post card
Private collection, Indianapolis

“What power has love but forgiveness? 
                  In other words
                                    by its intervention
what has been done
                  can be undone. 
                                    What good is it otherwise? 
Because of this
                  I have invoked the flower
                                    in that
frail as it is
                  after winter’s harshness
                                    it comes again
to delect us. 
                  Asphodel, the ancients believed,
                                    in hell’s despite
was such a flower.”[vii]


[i] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 161.

[ii] Gatlin, Laurie; in an artist’s statement and e-mail communication with this writer; 29 June 2020, 6:58 AM.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 153.

[iv] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; pp. 296-197, lines 538-541.

[v] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; p. 507, lines 11-16.

[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 161-162.

[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 169-170.

THE FLAYING OF MARSYAS

It is a fabulously horrific depiction of the flaying of Marsyas as told in ancient times by the poet Ovid and painted late in the life of the Renaissance painter Titian.  Recent novelists such as Iris Murdoch and Evelyn Waugh have often mentioned the importance of this painting with regard to their own writing.  And, the painter Tom Phillips even included it in his official portrait of Murdoch, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Titian may have kept this painting in his studio longer than usual, psychological reflections of an old man on his life, while employing those plastic and gestural movements, which keep a painting alive, even after years of work, over and over, on the same surface.  Titian painted “The Flaying of Marsyas” between 1570 and 1576.  Its patron is unknown. 

Titian
“Self Portrait”
1567
Oil on canvas
86 cm x 65 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Although in his “Lives of the Artists” Vasari does not mention this painting in particular, he does write about the working method that Titian used around this time.  He writes:  “…and these last works are executed with bold strokes and dashed off with a broad and even coarse sweep of the brush, insomuch that from near little can be seen, but from a distance they appear perfect….Although many believe that they are done without effort, in truth it is not so…for it is known that they are painted over and over again, and that he returned to them with his colours so many times, that the labour  may be perceived.  And this method, so used, is judicious, beautiful, and astonishing, because it makes pictures appear alive and painted with great art….”[i]

Titian
“The Flaying of Marsyas”
DETAIL (Inverted)

In the original telling of this ancient story, it was Marsyas the satyr, in his arrogance, who had challenged Apollo to a piping contest.  It was agreed that it would take place in the woods with an audience of those from both the woodlands and Olympus.  Afterwards all agreed that Apollo had easily won and that was it.  However, Apollo had been offended, and in his wrath, ordered the flaying of Marsyas.  This is how Ovid described it: 

“After the Theban had told this story about the demise of the Lycian
peasants, another recalled the horrible punishment
dealt to the Satyr who’d challenged Latona’s son to a piping
contest and lost.  ‘Don’t rip me away from myself!’ he entreated;
‘I’m sorry!’ he shouted between his shrieks, ‘Don’t flay me for piping!’
In spite of his cries, the skin was peeled from his flesh, and his body
was turned into one great wound; the blood was pouring all over him,
muscles were fully exposed, his uncovered veins convulsively
quivered; the palpitating intestines could well be counted,
and so could organs glistening through the wall of his chest.
The piper was mourned by the rustic fauns who watch over the woodlands,
his brother satyrs, the nymphs and Olympus, the pupil he loved
by all who tended their flocks or herds on the Lycian mountains.
Their tears dropped down and saturated the fertile earth,
who absorbed them deep in her veins and discharged them back into the air
in the form of a spring.  This found its way to the sea through a channel,
which took the name Marsyas, clearest of Phrygian rivers.”[ii]

Titian
“The Flaying of Marsyas”
1570-1576
Oil on canvas
212 cm x 207 cm
Archdiocesan Museum, Komeriz
The Czech Republic

In a more contemporary rendition of this story, the poet Robin Robertson includes an extended description of this ancient and mythical event.  Below are several selections from this larger ekphrastic piece:  a lyrical description of the scene on that day, specific instructions from the butcher to his two apprentices, illusions of bad tattoos as if lifted from the skin, and an allusion of a dismantled man, not unlike the anatomy of a painting and its skin, as a “disappointing pentimento.”   

THE FLAYING OF MARSYAS after Ovid

“A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves,
Sifting down to dapple the soft ground, and rest
a gilded bar against the muted flanks of trees.
In the flittering green light the glade
listens in and breathes.

A wooden pail; some pegs, a coil of wire;
A bundle of steel flensing knives.

Spreadeagled between two pines,
Hooked at each hoof to the higher branches,
tied to the root by the hands, flagged
as his own white cross,
the satyr Marsyas hangs.

Three stand as honour guard:
two apprentices, one butcher.”

“Let’s have a look at you, then.
Bit scrawny for a satyr,
all skin and whipcord, is it?
Soon find out.
So, think you can turn up with your stag-bones and outplay Lord Apollo?
This’ll learn you. Fleece the fucker.

Now. One of you on each side.
Blade along the bone, find the tendon,
nick it and peel, nice and slow.
A bit of shirt-lifting, now, to purge him,
pull his wool over his eyes
and show him Lord Apollo’s rapture;
pelt on one tree, him on another:
the inner man revealed.”

“Hanging Marsyas”
Marble
Height 2.56 m
Roman copy c. 150 AD based on an original Hellenistic
group created at the Pergamon during the late 3rd Century BC
Musee Louvre, Paris

“Red Marsyas. Marsyas ecorche,
splayed, shucked of his skin
in a tug and rift of tissue;
his birthday suit sloughed
the way a sodden overcoat is eased
off the shoulders and dumped.
All memories of a carnal life
lifted like a bad tattoo,
live bark from the vascular tree:
raw Marsyas unsheathed.

Or this: the shambles of Marsyas.
The dark chest meat marbled with yellow fat,
his heart like an animal breathing in its milky envelope,
the viscera a well-packed suitcase
of chitterlings, a palpitating tripe.
A man dismantled, a tatterdemalion
torn to steak and rind,
a disappointing pentimento
or the toy that can’t be re-assembled
by the boy Apollo, a raptor, vivisector.

The sail of stretched skin thrills and snaps
in the same breeze that makes his nerves
fire, his bare lungs scream.
Stripped of himself and from his twin:
the stiffening scab and the sticky wound.

Marsyas the martyr, a god’s fetish,
hangs from the tree like bad fruit.”[iii]

As a footnote to this subject:  the novelist Iris Murdoch was especially fond of this painting.  References to it are included in several of her novels, and when the artist Tom Phillips was commissioned to do her portrait for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery in London, Murdoch suggested that a portion of the Titian painting be included in the background of her portrait.  And it was.

Tom Phillips
“Portrait of Iris Murdoch”
1987
Oil on canvas
36” x 28”
National Portrait Gallery, London

[i] Vasari, Giorgio; Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York and Toronto; 1996; p. 794.   

[ii] Ovid; Metamorphoses:  Book 6 (Translated by David Raeburn); Penguin Classics; London, England; 2004; pp. 228-229, lines 382-400.

[iii] Robertson, Robin; A Painted Field; Harcourt Brace & Company; San Diego, New York, London; 1997; pp. 10-12.

BATTLE OF LIGHTS: CONEY ISLAND & BROOKLYN BRIDGE

For how many years have these two landmarks, Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge, attracted the attention of poets and painters?  Many have tackled this subject.  When we read Walt Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ or Hart Crane’s ‘To Brooklyn Bridge’ there are many elements that remind us of other works by artists like John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Joseph Stella.  Contemporary poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Joseph Stanton have also made mention of these sites. 

Most recently, and very importantly, we have images from the contemporary photographer Dudley Gray, whose work clearly shares many of these same aesthetic concerns.  In fact, many of Dudley Gray’s images have been published over the years, and the writer Janel Bladow has had this to say in describing his work in OMNI Magazine: 

“The cables of the Brooklyn Bridge…become flamboyant, spidery abstractions.  Around Manhattan other buildings, bathed in vivid colored light, brightly beam the urban nightscape.  These marvels of design sparkle like precious jewels.”[i] 

Dudley Gray
“Brooklyn Bridge Illuminations:  Cables”
COPYRIGHT 2003
Color photograph
Collection of the artist  

“Without altering the physical structure of the cityscape, artist Joseph Strand and photographer Dudley Gray can change the mood of the city.  Their urban illuminations transform today’s skyline into stunning abstract light sculptures of the future.”[ii] 

However, we must go back in time and follow a progression of these words and images.  In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman describes some of the very spots that would later become the views people would have when crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.  In fact, throughout this poem Whitman makes reference to the generations of the future who will experience these sights. 

“The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks,

On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each     side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,

On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,

Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.”[iii]

“Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour      high;

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.”[iv]

John Marin
“Brooklyn Bridge, on the Bridge”
1930
Watercolor on paper
21 3/4” x 26 3/4”
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois  

One of these others from fifty or one hundred years hence would surely be the painter Joseph Stella.  Stella has always been a difficult artist to categorize.  Although he was a very figurative painter he was not close to the American realists and regionalists so popular during the early years of the 20th Century.  Although he was a modernist, he would not be classified as a colonial cubist, as others were during that same era.  He is appealing to us today for these very reasons. 

Stella’s body of work includes almost classical portrait drawings of his contemporaries such as Edgar Varese, Marcel Duchamp, and Katherine Millay.  Amongst his most important, and famous images, are paintings from the “New York Interpreted” series, especially the works in reference to Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge.  And finally, there exists another body of work that includes many references to natural objects and fantasies. 

Another literary reference should be added here:  Joseph Stella wrote several manuscript notes regarding his individual paintings.  They were written fragments, translated from the Italian by Irma B. Jaffe, and included in her book dealing with the symbolism in Stella’s work.[v]  These written statements by Stella are in themselves quite serious and lyrical.  They do not just describe, but provide a literary parallel to his paintings.  They are just as mystical as his paintings, equal to them, and excellent examples of the ekphrastic process in their own right.

Joseph Stella
“The Brooklyn Bridge:  Variation on an Old Theme”
1939
Oil on canvas
70 1/4” x 42”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

“Seen for the first time, as a weird metallic Apparition under a metallic sky, out of proportion with the winged lightness of its arch, traced for the conjunction of Worlds, supported by the massive dark towers dominating the surrounding tumult of the surging skyscrapers with their gothic majesty sealed in the purity of their arches, the cables, like divine messages from above, transmitted to the vibrating coils, cutting and dividing into innumerable musical spaces the nude immensity of the sky, it impressed me as the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America…the eloquent meeting of all the forces arising in a superb assertion of powers, in Apotheosis.”[vi]

Joseph Stella
“Battle of Lights, Coney Island”
1913-1914
Oil on canvas
39 7/16” x 29 5/16”
Anna R. and Frank M. Hall Charitable Trust,
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska,
Lincoln, Nebraska

Jumping ahead to contemporary literature, recent references have appeared to both Coney Island and Far Rockaway by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The very first book I read by Ferlinghetti was A Coney Island of the Mind, purchased in San Francisco in 1970 or so; and the most recent one was A Far Rockaway of the Heart, which I purchased just after his reading here in Indianapolis at Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus on 7 February 2000. 

We learned that night, that he had been continually writing, adding to, and expanding upon many of his earlier themes.  Even though he had spent so much time at the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, he seemed to be making several references to his earlier years:  the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and any number of childlike antics on sidewalks just below the bridges and elevated train tracks.    

The Junkman’s Obligato

“Let us arise and go now 
into the interior dark night
of the soul’s still bowery
and find ourselves anew
where subways stall and wait
under the River. 
Cross over
into full puzzlement. 
South Ferry will not run forever. 
They are cutting out the Bay ferries
but it is still not too late
to get lost in Oakland. 
Washington has not yet toppled
from his horse. 
There is still time to goose him
and go
leaving our income tax form behind
and our waterproof wristwatch with it
staggering blind after alleycats
under Brooklyn’s Bridge
blown statues in baggy pants
our tincan cries and garbage voices
trailing. 
Junk for sale!”[vii]

John Marin
“Brooklyn Bridge”
1912
Watercolor and charcoal
18 5/8” x 15 5/8”
Alfred Stieglitz Collection
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Poets of a younger generation have also taken on these ideas and images, including the writer and art historian Joseph Stanton.  With his writing, Stanton creates imaginary places and even museums with various ‘wings’ housing his personal collection of ekphrastic masterpieces, including this reference to Josef Stella and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Josef Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge

“On his first painting of it,
lines of force slant this way, then slant that,
flickering a cacophony of blue and white
above a blossom of blood;
while the spine articulates—
in tiny, elegant detail—
the sequenced towers. 

Passing the frisson futurism
in subsequent pictures,
Stella settled to a symmetry
a quintessential modernism
that became the way he crossed
this bridge every subsequent time
he came to its soaring contradictions—

Josef Stella
“Brooklyn Bridge”
1919-1920
Oil on canvas
84.7” x 76.6”
Yale University Art Gallery
New Haven, Connecticut

medieval gothic are its massive piers
and yet the machined-aged cables of steel,
the taut song of its wiring mechanique,
is what lifts our spirits, transports us,
as we walk the interior passage,
unique to this suspension,
a path that makes our walking seem

a transit towards an altar,
an altar that turns out to be
the City of Brooklyn,
a place worthy of worship in its way,
but cruel, ungraspable. 
‘Only the dead know Brooklyn,’
sayeth the gospel of Thomas Wolfe.”[viii]                           

Thinking again about modernism and the “wiring mechanique,” Janel Bladow has summarized perfectly the effect of light falling on the Brooklyn Bridge, while quoting Dudley Gray:  “To Gray, light caresses structure.  ‘It’s like a love affair between light and steel.  Colors run from hot purples to cold blues.  Buildings suddenly acquire both intense identification and peaceful beauty in one dazzling moment.’”[ix] 

Dudley Gray
“Brooklyn Bridge Illuminations:  Cables”
COPYRIGHT 2003
Color photograph
Collection of the artist 

TO BROOKLYN BRIDGE

“Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud flown derricks turn…
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.”[x]


[i] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.

[ii] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.

[iii] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 3, p. 144. 

[iv] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 2, p. 143.

[v] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California, and New York, New York; 1994.

[vi] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California and New York, New York; 1994; (Unpaginated, printed opposite Plate 13).

[vii] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; A Coney Island of the Mind; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1958; p. 56.

[viii] Stanton, Joseph; Moving pictures; Shanti Arts Publishing; Brunswick, Maine; 2019; p. 86.

[ix] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 73.

[x] Crane, Hart, ed. Marc Simon; “To Brooklyn Bridge” from The Complete Poems of Hart Crane; Liveright Publishing Corporation; New York and London; 2001; p. 43.

A SUITCASE FILLED WITH CHILDREN’S DRAWINGS

She would have them start out by doing gesture drawings and warming up before some of the more formal work began in the studio.  It was an idea right out of the Bauhaus School, where she herself had studied.  This art teacher did both drawing and color assignments as well as graphic and plastic exercises.

Josef Bauml
“Drawing exercise—relaxing the hand, rhythm”
1943-44
Graphite on paper
25 x 31.2 cm
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“She believed in mixing colors
and drawing from nature”

“She taught exercises in composition
and breathing”

“She spoke of positive and negative forms
and the rhythm of geometric shapes
and the musical keyboard of color”[i]            

Hana Lustigova
“Exercise—color theory”
1943-1944
Watercolor and graphite on paper
17.2 x 25.2 cm
The Jewish Museum, Prague

Friedl Dicker was born on 30 July 1898 in Vienna, Austria.  During her youth, she and several friends studied with the artist Johann Itten at his private school in Vienna.  She later followed Itten to Weimar, Germany, where she studied at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923.  Along with Itten, she also studied with Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer and Paul Klee.  She was especially influenced by the drawing and introductory courses that had been developed by Itten.

Friedl Dicker
“Composition, Abstract Figure”
ca. 1920
Charcoal, pastel
15 1/2” x 12 1/2”
The University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria

After leaving the Bauhaus, she established workshops and ateliers in both Berlin and Vienna, focusing on architecture, interior design, textiles and bookbinding.  She also became an art educator, guiding kindergarten teachers in Vienna in the education of children. 

Dicker continued with both her own work and teaching for several years, and even produced a series of political posters in support of the Austrian Communist Party.  During the February Uprising in 1934 she was arrested and interrogated regarding her communist activities.  After her release, she moved to Prague, continued her creative activities, and met and married Pavel Brandeis on 30 April 1936.  There she continued her own studio work as well as teaching art to Jewish children who were no longer allowed to attend the public schools.

On 17 December 1942, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was deported to the Terezin concentration camp just north of Prague.  From a third-story window she continued to paint scenes of the courtyard below, and she continued to teach children in her art classes in the camp.  She brought the lessons that she had learned at the Bauhaus directly to her new young charges at Terezin.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis
“Bare Tree in Courtyard”
1943/1944
Watercolor
11 3/4” x 17 1/2”
Simon Wiesenthal Center Library and Archives,
Los Angeles, California

On 6 October 1944, Dicker-Brandeis and her students were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau where they were executed on 9 October 1944.

Just before her classes were closed, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis collected 4,387 drawings completed by her students.  She packed them all in two suitcases and hid them in one of the children’s dormitories in the Ghetto in Prague.  Since their rediscovery, these works have been featured at both the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Jewish Museum in Prague, where they are now preserved in the permanent collection.

Several years ago we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.  It was there that I first saw the drawings of the children who had been incarcerated in the concentration camps in Europe.  I immediately purchased the catalog titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”[ii] and have kept its memory close.  Later I read a new collection of Edward Hirsch’s work titled Lay Back the Darkness that contained a section titled “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944.” 

I wrote to him regarding this sequence of poems.  As it turned out, we had both seen some of this work in person, although in two very different locations:  he had seen them at the Museum in Terezin, and I had seen them in Washington, DC.  When I asked him about this, this was his response:  “I didn’t see that particular exhibition in Washington, but I’m sure it includes the same work that I saw a couple of times at the museum in Terezin.  I first discovered some of the poems and drawings in a little book called ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly.’  That was later amplified into the exhibition.”[iii]  

After reading Hirsch’s book, many of the images from the drawings came flooding back into my mind, so I have paired a selection of Edward Hirsch’s lines with some of the children’s drawings here.  I also asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Helmick, an expert on Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, for her thoughts on this important art educator.  This is a summary of what she wrote back to me: 

“The empathetic experience of artmaking was Friedl Dicker Brandeis’ gift to the young artists in the Nazi concentration camp. While many artists in the Nazi internment camp recorded the awful circumstances in which they were imprisoned, Dicker Brandeis provided aesthetic experiences for the children in her charge….By teaching them to observe and experience their visual world…she enabled them to live imaginatively in horrific conditions. The artifacts left behind were not just products of art making but windows into the soul of the makers that gave proof of meaning making and authentic engagement, just as Dicker Brandeis believed.”[iv]

Ruth Schachterova
“Composition”
1943/1944
Paper collage
10” x 14”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“A pasted collage on an office form
of a sunny evening in Terezin”[v]         

Sonja Spitzova
“Prague Theater, Guard with a Stick”
1943-1944
Collage with paper from an office ledger
7 3/4” x 8 1/4”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“This is a guard with a stick
This is a stick with a heart
This is a heart with a horseshoe
This is a girl flinging the horseshoe at a guard”[vi]            

(Unknown child artist)
“Free Art”
1943/1944
Watercolor
8” x 10 1/2”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“An unsigned still life with a jelly jar
filled with meadow flowers”[vii]                   

Vilem Eisner
1943-1944
“Forest”
Watercolor on paper
15.2 x 21.3 cm
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“Somewhere out there in the trees
far away from the barracks
childhood is still waiting for me”[viii]            

(Unknown child artist)    
“Composition”
1943/1944
Watercolor
10 1/2” x 8”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“Not even the teacher
who had studied at the Bauhaus
could draw the face of God”[ix]                     


[i] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 55.

[ii] Volavkova, Hana, ed., Haim Potok, Vaclav Havel; I Never Saw Another Butterfly; Schocken Books; New York, Neew York; 1993.

[iii] Hirsch, Edward; (From an e-mail correspondence with this writer); 26 July 2017 at 9:49AM.

[iv] Helmick, Linda, PhD; Assistant Professor of Art Education, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; (From an e-mail correspondence with this author); 24 March 2020, 10:57 am.

[v] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.

[vi] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 51.

[vii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.

[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 49.

[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 53.

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.

JOYCE, WHAT KIND OF NAME IS THAT?

Judy Linn
“Patti Smith’s Window, 23rd Street”
(Copyright) 1971
B&W Photograph
Collection of the artist

“conversation with the kid”

“who’s the guy on the glass?
that’s joyce.
joyce, that’s a girl’s name.
that’s a name.
well, what’s with him?
he watches over me.
he only got one eye.
a guy like him that’s all he needs.”[i]

The poems of Patti Smith are simultaneously cutting and fanciful, getting at a certain truth even as they weave myths, fantasies and contemporary literature together.  There are several statements made by Smith that remind me of another artist’s work, the contemporary painter Robert Barnes.  Whether in a poem by Smith or a painting by Barnes, we definitely witness a series of visual ambiguities and associative shifts taking place.

“a coronet of stars
ornament of the tame
no one to bow to
to vow to
to blame
how did i die?
i tried to walk thru light
with tangled hair
not yet prepared
for the valley of combat.”[ii]   

Judy Linn
“Patti Smith as Bob Dylan”
(Copyright) 1971
B&W Photograph
Collection of the artist

“dog dream”

“have you seen
dylan’s dog
it got wings
it can fly
if you speak
of it to him
it’s the only
time Dylan
can’t look you in the eye”

“have you seen
dylan’s dog
it got wings
it can fly
when it lands
like a clown
he’s the only
thing allowed
to look Dylan in the eye”[iii]

They both, Patti Smith and Robert Barnes, have their idols and inspirations, an assortment of creative and eccentric characters.  For Barnes these include:  James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Craven, Jeremy Bentham, and Tristan Tzara.  And Smith:  again James Joyce, William S. Burrows, Jean Genet, Andre Breton, Arthur Rimbaud, and Bob Dylan.  Magicians and tricksters they are, in both words and images.  Smith masquerading as Dylan, and Barnes often using the analogy of the slight of hand embodied in the old time ‘table cloth’ trick!

“dishes crank on my nerves”[iv] 

Robert Barnes
“Regency Room”
1981
Pastel on Masonite
23 7/8” x 23 7/8”
Larry and Evelyn Aronson, Chicago, Illinois

During the fall of 2015 the Indiana University Art Museum held a retrospective of Robert Barnes’ work, “Grand Illusions:  Late Works 1985-2015.”   This was such a powerful show, and it was the second such exhibition of his work that I have seen in person.  In his remarks at the opening Barnes mentioned several influential books including:  “The Golden Bough” by James George Frazer, “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves, and “Ulysses” by James Joyce.  Using these examples, he noted how a subject unfolds as it is invented in his paintings.  A narrative transformation of sorts takes place.[v] 

“Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey” was the earlier exhibition organized by the Madison Art Center in Wisconsin, which travelled to the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, and several other national locations.  The main essay for this catalogue was written by the Chicago critic and curator Dennis Adrian, and set about describing and defining many of the issues and ideas that flow through this work.

“The complex, shifting, and many-layered sense of a larger reality has important correspondences in Barmes’s (sic) various literary and artistic enthusiasms.  Among the most significant of these is his love and regard for the writing of James Joyce.  In fact, Barnes’ method and effects are like the continuous unreeling present in Joyce’s Ulysses, where the events of Leopold Bloom’s day are experienced by both him and the reader as shifting and overlapping elements of feeling, observation, memory, fantasy, imagination, conflation of past and present…all of which are rooted in the structure, incidents, and characters of Homer’s Odyssey.[vi]  

“In both Joyce and Barnes, the ‘subject,’ so to speak, is created and even invented freshly for us, but it also contains, through parallels of structure, allusion, or direct reference, a connection with other realms of experience, ‘actual,’ artistic, or both….The elements in Barnes’ paintings which feel like the record or recollections of some specific actuality help to create a forceful presence for his abstract inventions and the curious forms which we seem to recognize but cannot identify, that is, the things which we know about perceptually but cannot name.”[vii]   

Robert Barnes
“James Joyce”
1959
Oil on canvas
96 1/4” x 72”
Private Collection, New York

More recently, I wrote to Robert Barnes to ask him about his work and especially his interest in James Joyce.  He graciously responded:   

“When I attended the University of Chicago in the fifties I was fortunate to have as a friend the poet Paul Carroll who wanted to be James Joyce!  We had as a drinking companion an Irishman who was then the answerman for the now defunct Chicago Daily News!  He was at one time an actor at the Abbey Theatre in the old country!  If we bought him drinks he would recite complete Irish plays (all the parts)!”

“At one time he undertook the reading of Ulysses!  He could do the plays verbatim but read Joyce from a book!  He claimed it had to be read with an Irish accent and I believe he was right!  It took him several evenings and lots of booze but was well worth it and gave me a life long love of things Joycean!”

Nancy Morgan Barnes
“Portrait of Bob (in front of his painting Molinard-Grasse)”
2000
Oil on panel
Indiana University Art Museum,
Bloomington, Indiana

“I have been fortunate in to have encountered inspiring people at the right time (it seems magical)!  Even without an Irish accent I think it a good idea to read Ulysses aloud or at least part of it….it is a life changing experience!”[viii]

Racing through a day in Dublin, in a stream of consciousness, Ulysses proceeds with abandon to its conclusion.  Its characters and stories often parallel the paintings of Robert Barnes.  Not only in his painting of Joyce, but in many other subjects, Barnes has created a cast of invented characters and self-portrait equivalents that exist within the spatial logic of both painting and poetry.

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, the Joyce family often used a local Dublin painter for family portraits.  This task went to Patrick Tuohy, who required James Joyce to sit daily for almost a month.  With tensions building between the artist and the writer as the work went on, Joyce became increasingly irritable, and it has been noted:  “…he was impatient with the artist’s pretensions:  ‘Never mind my soul.  Just be sure you have my tie right.’”[ix]

Patrick Tuohy
“James Joyce in Paris”
1924
Oil on canvas
24” x 19 3/4”
State University of New York, Buffalo, New York

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon.
In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”[x]   


[i] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 13.

[ii] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 163.

[iii] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; pp. 22-23.

[iv] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 53.

[v] A discussion between Robert Barnes and Michael Brooks that took place during the opening ceremonies of the “Robert Barnes:  Grand Illusions, Late Works 1985-2015” exhibition at the Indiana University Museum of Art, Bloomington, Indiana.  From my notes taken during that program, 25 September 2015. 

[vi] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10. 

[vii] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10. 

[viii] Barnes, Robert; from an e-mail correspondence with this writer on 24 March 2020, at 11:53 am.

[ix] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, and Toronto; 1997; p. xxviii.

[x] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. x.

MONDRIAN DANCING

“The geometries in the paintings—the center line and other divisions—are the main fascinators…. Working with wholes and parts has always been important…. It is important that on each side of the middle line there is a good, solid form. Where divisions become more complex, it is a matter of making certain that each section has individual solidarity as well as a working contribution to the wholeness of the picture.”[i]

mondrian
Piet Mondrian
“Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow”
1937-1942
Oil on canvas
23 3/4” x 21 7/8”
The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

 

“But let us note that art—even on an abstract level—has never been confined to ‘idea’; art has always been the ‘realized’ expression of equilibrium.”[ii]

The importance of the inter-relationships between the whole and its parts, the expression of equilibrium, and the underlying architecture of any work of art have always been important elements in the making of a painting.  The statements above illustrate these concerns from two very different artists:  the first one from Susan Rothenberg and the second from Piet Mondrian.

Even though a painting by Susan Rothenberg may seem to have nothing in common with one by Mondrian, in the middle 1980’s Rothenberg paid him a tribute with a series of new paintings.  Younger artists of that era, associated with the New Image and Bad Painting exhibitions, seemed to rediscover certain forms of imagery and gesture, which reinvigorated painting after it had recently been declared dead.  The meaningful gesture and a renewed sense of the plastic possibilities of painting energized this new work.

With his arrival in New York City in 1940, Mondrian’s work began to change and respond to his new environment.  The Neo-Plastic aesthetic became a trans-Atlantic issue for a larger artistic community.  His direct influence on younger artists, especially in the United States, included Harry Holtzman, Charmion von Wiegand, Fritz Glarner and Ilya Bolotowsky.

mondrian2
Charmion von Wiegand
“Untitled”
1946
Opaque watercolor and graphite on paper on board
22” x 18”
Whitney Museum of Art, New York

 

During this time period Mondrian’s work had shifted from works he had brought with him when he emigrated from Europe into a new phase of New York paintings.  Even Lee Krasner acknowledged his influence and importance for American artists.  Mary Gabriel writes of this several times in her book Ninth Street Women, especially mentioning Krasner talking about meeting Mondrian in his studio, and two of his vices:

“Mondrian embodied restraint—physical and spiritual—but he had two secret vices:  coffee (he hid his pot so this weakness wouldn’t be discovered) and, inconceivably, dancing.  He had a Victrola and a stack of Blue Note jazz records to which he danced barefoot in his studio.  Though he had taken lessons in Paris to learn the fox-trot and the tango, he preferred improvisation.  One dance partner called him ‘terrifying.’”[iii]

mondrian3
Susan Rothenberg
“Mondrian Dancing”
1984-1985
Oil on canvas
78” x 91”
The Saint Louis Museum of Art,
Saint Louis, Missouri

 

In another literary vein, when the poet Charles Wright visited Butler University in Indianapolis as part of its Visiting Writers Series on 29 March 2005, he made reference to a variety of artists, from Vasari and Michelangelo to Morandi and Mondrian, with Milton Avery and Wolf Kahn in between.  Meditations on the shapes and specific colors in these paintings, Wright wove individual descriptions and imaginings together into a lyrical whole and made a point of referring to specific Mondrian paintings.  Included below are two of his pieces, along with the paintings to which they refer.

SUMMER STORM

“As Mondrian knew,
Art is an image of an image of an image,
More vacant, more transparent
With each repeat and slough:
one skin, two skins, it comes clear,
An old idea not that old.”

“Two rectangles, red and grey, from 1935,
Distant thunder like a distant thunder—
Howitzer shells, large
drop-offs into drumbeat and roll.
And there’s that maple again,
Head like an African Ice Age queen, full-leafed and lipped.

Behind her, like clear weather,

Mondrian’s window gives out
onto ontology,
A dab of red, a dab of grey, white interstices.
You can’t see the same thing twice,
As Mondrian knew.”[iv]

mondrian4
Piet Mondrian
“Composition (No. 1) Gray-Red”
1935
Oil on canvas
22 5/8” x 21 7/8”
The Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago

SITTING AT DUSK IN THE BACK YARD AFTER THE MONDRIAN RETROSPECTIVE

“Form imposes, structure allows—
the slow destruction of form
So as to bring it back resheveled, reorganized,
Is the hard heart of the enterprise.
Under its camouflage,
The light, relentless shill and cross-dresser, pools and deals.
Inside its short skin, the darkness burns.

Mondrian thought the destructive element in art
Much too neglected.
Landscape, of course, pursues it savagely.
And that’s what he meant:
You can’t reconstruct without the destruction being built in;
There is no essence unless
nothing has been left out.

Destruction takes place so order might exist.
Simple enough.
Destruction takes place at the point of maximum awareness.
Orate sine intermissione, St. Paul instructs.
Pray uninterruptedly.
The gods and their names have disappeared.
Only the clouds remain.

Meanwhile, the swallows wheel, the bat wheels, the grackles
begin their business.
It’s August.
The countryside
Gathers itself for sacrifice, its slow
fadeout along the invisible,
Leaving the land its architecture of withdrawal,
Black lines and white spaces, an emptiness primed with reds and blues.”[v]

mondrian5
Piet Mondrian
“Composition with Red and Blue”
1933
Oil on canvas
16 1/4” 13 1/8”
The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

It was as if Mondrian had found his home.  The new environment and the company of artists and the hustle suited him to a tee.  Even though he sometimes isolated himself in order to work, he also explored and enjoyed this new vibrancy.  However, his death in 1944 left a void in all of this.  Another section of Ninth Street Women again mentions Lee Krasner’s memories of this time:

“Amid the unrelenting reports of death in the world, three in particular shook Lee.  Mondrian had died in late January 1944.  The sadness surrounding his passing was not just over the loss of a great artist, it was also over the circumstances of his death.  Mondrian had stayed up until four a.m. after an opening and had subsequently become ill.  Though bedridden for several days, in his humility he hadn’t wanted to bother anyone, and so he had remained alone in his stark white apartment with its myriad right angles until friends finally discovered he was sick and took him to the hospital.  It was too late.  He died five days later of pulmonary pneumonia.  Mondrian had had only one solo show during his lifetime, and that was in New York, where he said he had spent the happiest years of his life—because of the music.”[vi]

mondrian6
Susan Rothenberg
“A Golden Moment”
1985
Oil on canvas
54” x 48”
Collection of Eli and Edythe L. Broad,
Los Angeles, California

 

A Golden Moment:  Mondrian sitting at a table/piano, about to play some jazz.  On this keyboard/table top, red and blue squares appear surrounded by white, while in the background a much larger passage of yellow covers part of the floor.  This is all very loose, very gestural, and supposedly the very opposite surface of a Mondrian painting.  Yet, when we have seen unfinished Mondrian paintings in both New York and the Netherlands, colored tapes appear, temporarily attached to the surface of the painting, even with some stripes painted out.  All lines and movements:  this is Mondrian, dancing with his paintings.

mondrian7
Piet Mondrian
“Composition with Double Lines and Yellow (unfinished)”
1934
Oil and charcoal on canvas
21 7/8” x 21 7/16”
Deutsche Bank Collection,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

“Having loved the surface for a long time, then one searches for something more.  And yet this is in the surface itself.  Looking through it one sees the inner.”[vii]

 


[i] Marshall, Richard; New Image Painting; Whitney Museum of American Art; New York, New York; 1978; p. 56.

[ii] Blotkamp, Carel; Mondrian:  The Art of Destruction; Harry N. Abrams; New York, New York; 1994; p. 9.

[iii] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women:  Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler:  Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. 81. 

[iv] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 61.

[v] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; pp. 122-123.

[vi] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women:  Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler:  Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. xx. 

[vii] Cooper, Harry, and Ron Spronk; Mondrian:  The Transatlantic Paintings; Harvard University Art Museums; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2001; p. 24.

BUTTERFLIES IN THE OUTFIELD

Dedicated to the memories of:  William Weber (1947-1968) and Dr. Timothy Wiles (1946-2003).

butter
Grant Wood
“Spring in Town”
1941
Oil on canvas
26” x 24”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

I had known of the poet Elizabeth “Coco” Weber for many years and had the chance to work directly with her in 1999-2000 at the Indianapolis Art Center in conjunction with the exhibition “The Art of Combat:  Artists and the Viet Nam War, Then & Now.”  It was through this work that I also met and became friends with other artists, writers and educators such as Arturo Alonzo Sandaval, Michael Aschenbrenner, W. D. Earhardt, Timothy Wiles, and Yusef Kommunyaka.

Elizabeth Weber had been in contact with many other writers and veterans in order to reconstruct and clarify the life and memory of her brother Bill, who had been the Radio Operator for Charlie Company and had been killed by a sniper’s bullet on 12 February 1968 at My Lai 3.  His death was not the only reason, but it was one of the reasons that triggered his mates and their actions later on 16 March 1968 at My Lai 5.

Elizabeth Weber has spent many years since then writing about her brother Bill, their shared childhood experiences, and the deep loss to her family following his death.  This, coupled with imagery stretching from Minnesota to Kansas to Indiana, sets the stage for times and places that become clear, fade, and become clear again.

As an artist, I was reminded of the great American Regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood.  Landscapes where sheets hung on a line drying, where flags flapped in the breeze, and preachers were busy baptizing young people or burying old soldiers as they returned home one final time.

 

butter2
John Steuart Curry
“Baptism in Kansas”
1928
Oil on canvas
40 1/4” x 50 1/4”
Whitney Museum of American Art
New York, New York

Elizabeth Weber opens the second section of her poem “Kansas, 1920” with the lines:  “My father says hell glories on this earth.  Nothing more.  Salvation is what big men talk about when they want something, like a church, or my brother.”

She reminded me later in a conversation that she totally understood the imagery that I had conjured up regarding these landscapes, however, she had in fact seen an installation by the contemporary artist Ann Hamilton at the Art Institute of Chicago.  An installation that I had also seen, of sheets mounted and stretched on tracks which circulated through the galleries of the museum, creating their own breeze, and weaving throughout the galleries.  I totally understood.  And that was exactly how she came upon the idea for the poem, Kansas, 1920.

 

butter3
Ann Hamilton
“Volumen”
Installation and documentation,
variable sizes and media included
in “About Place: Recent Art of the Americas” at
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, 1995.

 

In The Outfield 

in memory of William Weber (1947-1968)

1
Across the street
one light is left in a restaurant.  A girl
rubs the counter so mold
won’t grow.  I watch her
like a sniper.  She cleans
everything once
and her heart is like mine.
One shot and she would fall
like the cloth she holds.
The light goes out—no light,
no girl, no heart.

2
I don’t know how
it was that day.
Perhaps the sniper sat
while the world throbbed into place.
Perhaps, brother,
butterflies swarmed in your eyes.
The sniper went to the heart:
He pulled the trigger.
It was all he could do.
The thin beat you heard
in your ears was just that—
blood that stops in a second
and turns black in the air.

3
Dear Bill, the monarchs swarmed
without you this September.
Goldenrods blazed.
All I could do was stand
in the outfield and watch them
explode in the sky.[i]

 

butter4
John Steuart Curry
“The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne”
1928-1940
Oil on canvas
38 1/4” x 52 1/4”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

 

Kansas, 1920
“I am a girl who stands among sheets
drying one by one in Kansas daylight.
They starch to a white beyond the simple roll
of these hills to dazzle my eyes.
In sheets like these they wrapped my brother
who yielded his body in a killing
called war, as if that made it more right.
The hole they blew in his side explodes in my head.
It stays now, a place for the day to escape to.
In her grief my mother gave up his clothing,
his books and planes he modeled from balsa.
She gave them up to the sky in a black furl
as if the heat of that burning
could wipe out the hurt she felt.
All that’s left is a shirt I stole and keep
balled in my dresser away from my mother’s hands.
My sister gives herself to every man she can
as if that could fill the hollow spot my brother left.
She says she wants to take in all their anguish
and looks in their eyes for a matching emptiness
where she can place herself, but finds instead an ache
like a fist.

My father says hell glories on this earth.
Nothing more.  Salvation is what big men talk about
when they want something, like a church
or my brother.  Every night he carves
rounds of cottonwood into the smooth moons of napkin holders.
I call them cries without faces.
I stand here by these starching sheets and know wisdom
waits in the field with the corn.
Grow, says the sun, and it grows.
Bend, says the rain, and it bends.
Die, says the cold, and it dies.
As I bend to the weight of these sheets,
I watch them die a little each day with the wash
but come glorious in the sun,
bright flags against an empty Kansas prairie.”[ii]

 


[i] Weber, Elizabeth; Small Mercies; Owl Creek Press; Missoula, Montana; 1983; pp. 17-18.

[ii] Weber, Elizabeth; “Kansas, 1920,” The Burning House; Main Street Rag; Charlotte, North Carolina; 2005; p. 9.

STILL LIFE WITH A BRIDLE

“The Orpheus of the still life.  He was surrounded by an aura of mystery, and legends circulated about what took place in his atelier, tales about supernatural forces he brought into his work.  Probably Torrentius thought a certain dose of charlatanism did not harm art (differing here from his modest guild brothers of the Fraternity of Saint Luke), but on the contrary helped it.  For example, he used to say he did not in fact paint but only placed paints on the floor next to his canvases; under the influence of musical sounds they arranged themselves in colourful harmonies.  But is not art, every art, a kind of alchemical transmutation?  From pigments dissolved in oil arise flowers, towns, bays of the ocean and views of paradise truer than the real ones.”[i]

 

bridle
Jan van de Velde
“Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius”
1628
Engraving
21.6 cm x 16.6 cm
Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It is an entire book written as an ekphrastic exercise.  The author, Zbigniew Herbert, takes various elements from the Golden Age of Dutch painting and life and weaves a series of stories and essays around these themes.  In this particular example, an art historian is doing research on a surprising painting that he has just encountered in a museum, by an artist he has never heard of.  The “Still Life with a Bridle” by Johannes van der Beeck, also know as Torrentius, is equally as enigmatic as its maker.  It clearly shows the artist’s hand at rendering a variety of materials and subjects:  reading from right to left across the center of the painting we have a ceramic jug, a glass cruet, and a pewter pitcher, clearly illustrating the artist’s ability to handle a variety of surfaces in both light and shadow.

 

bridle-2
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
(DETAIL)

Herbert, even in the description of this still life, finds an underlying structure forming both horizontals and verticals, as well as hidden imagery, a mysterious note placed at the bottom of the composition and then the dark, almost hidden bridle directly above at the top.  And, as an historian, he warns himself of the dangers of speculation and reading into the meaning of this mysterious painting.  In the process of deciphering the verse written on the note anchoring the composition, Herbert observes:  “Gnomic poems, particularly those that are esoteric texts, should be explained rather than translated word by word.  One should approach them by degrees of meaning, carefully and on tiptoes, because literalness renders their meaning shallow and frightens away mystery.”[ii]

 

bridle-3
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
1614
1’ 8” x 1’ 8”
Oil on wooden panel
Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Bret Waller, the Director Emeritus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art used to always start his talks to my classes with the explanation that:  “All works of art contain within themselves the definition of what they are about and how they were made.”[iii]  And then of course, he would go through the elements of the piece that we were standing in front of and explicate exactly that.  I have always tried to keep this lesson in mind, as both an artist and educator.

My reading over the last year, in both Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Sbigniew Herbert, has led to several new definitions and functions regarding the ekphrastic tradition.  Contained within the descriptions of certain works of visual art are not merely observations but also insights; not just formal analyses but also lyrical and metaphorical underpinnings.

Lessing does this by first arguing one side of the history and in the next chapter, arguing the exact opposite side in both dating and aesthetic problems.  Until more scientific dating can occur, we will be left with only a range of styles:  early or late, Greek or Roman, etc.  Herbert is aware of this dilemma as well, and even quotes the great French poet:  “Paul Valery warned:  ‘We should apologize that we dare to speak about painting.’  I was always aware of committing a tactless act.”[iv]

“I know well, too well, all the agonies and vain effort of what is called description, and also the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language—as voluminous, as receptive as hell—in which court verdicts and love novels are written.  I don’t even know very well what inclines me to undertake these efforts.  I would like to believe that it is my impervious ideal that requires me to pay it clumsy homages.”[v]

bridle-4
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
(DETAIL)

“Freedom – so many treatises were written about it that it became a pale, abstract concept.  But for the Dutch it was something as simple as breathing, looking and touching objects.  It did not need to be defined or beautified.  This is why there is no division in their art between what is great and small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary.  They painted apples and the portraits of fabric shopkeepers, pewter plates and tulips, with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison.”[vi]

 


[i] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; Notting Hill Editions; London, United Kingdom; 2012; p. 100.

[ii] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 127.

[iii] This observation is taken from my own notebooks and recollections of several public and private discussions with Mr. Bret Waller, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 1990-2001.

[iv] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 123.

[v] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 122.

[vi] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 150.